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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Future Of "Duck Dynasty" Up In The Air; Obama's Choice For China

Aired December 20, 2013 - 16:30   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. In the Money Lead today, you mess with the papa duck and apparently the whole raft gets rattled. The family behind A&E's hit reality show "Duck Dynasty" is standing behind their patriarch who was suspended by the network over controversial comments he made about blacks and homosexuality. It could mean the show's future is up in the air.

Phil Robertson took a lot of heat for an article in "GQ" magazine where he called homosexuality a sin. He also painted a pretty rosy picture of what life was like for African-Americans in rural Louisiana during the pre-civil rights era. Robertson said quote, "I never heard one black person say these doggone white people, not a word. Pre pre- entitlement, pre-welfare, they were godly, they were happy. No one was singing the blues."

As critics have pointed out it kind of glosses over a lack voting rights and mentioning Klan lynching and constant reminders of one second class status not to mention, of course, that the blues was born out of the struggle of African-Americans in the Deep South. In addition to comments Robertson made in the article, a video surfaced today that shows Robertson referring to homosexuals as God haters during a church event back in 2010.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PHIL ROBERTSON, CAST MEMBER, "DUCK DYNASTY": Women with women, men with men, they committed indecent acts with one another and they received in themselves the penalty for their perversions. They're full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant God haters.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Robertson's defenders point out these are his religious beliefs, but after backlash from gay rights groups and the NAACP, A&E Network put Robertson on indefinite suspension, which prompted this response from his family. Quote, "We are disappointed that Phil has been placed on hiatus for expressing his faith, which is his constitutionally protective right. We have had a successful working relationship with A&E, but as a family we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm."

So what does this all mean for the future of this incredibly popular franchise? "Duck Dynasty" with what "Forbes" predicted would be $400 million in "Duck Dynasty" merchandise sold this year alone, including two best-selling books and a Christmas album that's on the Billboard charts.

How will A&E manage the show, which has been ratings gold and a financial boon in the face of these threats of boycotts from Robertson's supporters? Well, Sharon Waxman is the editor in chief and CEO of the rap.com. She joins us now live from Los Angeles. Sharon, thanks for being with us. You spoke exclusively with a top executive at A&E about how they reached the decision to suspend Robertson. What did they say?

SHARON WAXMAN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF AND CEO, THEWRAP.COM: Basically, it wasn't a very long and tortured discussion. I think they took that decision fairly quickly, fairly decisively. What happened was that "GQ" article broke in, which the comments about homosexuality being a sin and bestiality, it was in the same sentence and they got a phone call from GLAAD, the gay and lesbian advocacy group early in the morning when that broke and very quickly that day, the CEO of A&E, who is a very powerful executive, runs the network, took the decision to put Phil Robertson on hiatus.

TAPPER: Sharon, to play devil's advocate here, this is not a surprise to me that Phil Robertson feels this way. I have to say, you know, A&E is going to be running a "Duck Dynasty" marathon this weekend. It seems a little hypocritical.

WAXMAN: I think that's a fair question. Interesting thing is first of all, this thing has blown up to the size that it has. It has just been this insane debate, virulent on both sides, by the way. GLAAD has told us they have never received more blowback on any issue in recent memory, which is amazing, and just judging by I see the comments that you guys have going on, the comments on our site, it's a debate not just for people who are bible thumpers and pro-"Duck Dynasty" and people in favor of gay rights.

It's more subtle debate than that. Are first amendment issues really involved here, really, what did A&E expect when they put a guy who basically embraces redneck culture and gives them a show, a top rated reality show on television, and he goes on an interview and the cover of "GQ" magazine, what do you think he's going to say?

At the same time, what they're saying at A&E is, look, this goes against our fundamental values as a company. Don't forget also, they have other networks at A&E, Lifetime and History Channel, and they have a broad base of viewers that also includes people who don't agree with Phil Robertson's views.

TAPPER: Some high profile conservatives from Texas Senator Ted Cruz to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wasted no time at all going all in for Robertson, supporting his right to free speech. Sarah Palin of course, they're not alone. Some people are threatening to boycott A&E over the suspension. Tell us about some of the other backlash A&E has received in the wake of this decision and is there a way, is there a path out for them, a way to wiggle out of this controversy without losing revenue and supporters? WAXMAN: You're right, this has spiked really red-hot very quickly. So there are A&E executives who have gotten threats. There is a campaign, you know, online petition is not that big a deal today and I think it's in the tens of thousands. Even if it's in the hundreds of thousands, that wouldn't mean to me necessarily a huge groundswell of support for Phil Robertson's views or against a decision to suspend him.

The show is very popular. So that's not that surprising and it's an issue that's at the very core of what have been culture wars as you well know. The whole question of gay marriage has been -- has had kind of a 180 degree flip this year, in the past year. So the people who are basically, who may feel they are on the losing end of that cultural battle are lashing out in some ways. I think threats are way over the line.

I'm seeing over on Twitter they are putting out the address and the phone number of A&E and they are urging people to call the network and protest that. What A&E has done here which is place a show that is not in production, I should say, on hiatus, is they have left themselves some flexibility.

So this is a number one show, as you pointed out quite correctly. It is driving a huge amount of revenue and huge amount of brand recognition for the network. They are not going to throw that away easily. At the same time, they will need to find that path out. They can't just embrace Phil Robertson. They can't say you know what, never mind, it's his point of view and now he's thought about it.

There is going to have to be some kind of reconciliation in which, for example, Phil Robertson apologizes for offending people. I mean, GLAAD has reached out to say look, we would like to work with him, you know, he did offer an initial apology, you recall. But he doesn't want to apologize for his religion and I think that's really where you're trying to thread that needle. A&E doesn't want to offend Christian viewers. That's a huge number, and as they pointed out, by the way, the bible, that hit series, was theirs.

TAPPER: Corinthians. He was quoting Corinthians. It's a difficult pickle they find themselves in.

WAXMAN: There is a way out. There is a way for Phil Robertson to recognize he has offended people and to apologize in some way, to maybe do some outreach and there's a way for A&E to welcome him back and they have the time to do that because the show is on hiatus.

TAPPER: They will need to do it because they make so much money for them. Sharon Waxman, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Coming up in politics, he's got a lot of experience when it comes to China and the White House, potentially has a lot to gain by getting him out of the way. Let's look at the politics behind the administration's latest nomination.

In Pop Culture, from wizard to thespian, Harry Potter is headed for the stage. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Let's move to the Politics Lead now. All warfare is based on deception. Seems apropos after the Obama administration announced plans to nominate Montana Senator Max Baucus to be the next ambassador to China. President Obama even delivered a personal ringing endorsement at his news conference today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Max Baucus is going to be an outstanding ambassador to China, and I would like a swift confirmation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The posting would reward one of the authors of the Affordable Care Act with an impressive diplomatic post as he exits public life and would likely give the administration a likely easy path through an often tricky Senate confirmation process. Senators love to confirm senators, after all.

But is there even more to this than meets the eye? Is there something that maybe we're missing? Well, it wouldn't be the first time the administration used the Beijing job to serve its own interests. According to several sources, Team Obama hoped appointing then Utah Republican Governor Jon Huntsman to the China gig back in 2009 would sideline him or at least damage him for the presidential race in 2012. So is the Baucus nomination about foreign policy or is this a Kansas City shuffle?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): On a foreign policy level, Senator Max Baucus seems an odd choice for America's next ambassador to China. The Montana Democrat does not speak Chinese, while he knows about trade issues, Baucus is not known for a history of ties to the country. According to the "Wall Street Journal," China's citizens are taking to their version of Twitter to voice concern over how the 72- year-old will fare in their notoriously thick Beijing air.

One post quoted reads "So old, don't die in the Beijing smog. But if you fan away the smog and look at this assignment through the lens of politics and Democrats wanting to keep control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, well, then sending Baucus to China makes perfect sense. Here's how many in the Senate think this game of musical chairs may play out inside the rotunda.

The six-term lawmaker has already announced he's retiring from the Senate leaving his seat up for grabs to Republicans in the next election. Being sent to China means the Democratic governor of Montana could appoint a fellow Democrat to fill the seat temporarily making that Democrat an incumbent which provides a big leg up for 2014 in terms of fundraising, name recognition and power.

Baucus is also the chair of the powerful finance committee. When he leaves, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon could take his place and that would leave Wyden's position as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee open possibly helping another Democrat in 2014. If the Energy Committee chairmanship is filled by vulnerable Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, that could also help the Democrats in the midterms.

Landrieu as Energy Committee chairwoman would likely see big oil and gas turn on the spigot of campaign cash for her Senate run next year. So when it all shakes out, sending one Democrat to the other side of the planet could be seen as a way to preserve two more Democrats in Washington, D.C.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: As Baucus prepares for his assignment in China, should he be confirmed, perhaps the politicos here should consider that life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. I want to bring in chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, who has been following this story. Dana, you actually caught up with Max Baucus, who does not give a lot of interviews today. What did he have to say?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first, I should say he was leaving the Senate for the year and he was in a good mood. Maybe that's why he agreed to stop. Nominees to these posts usually don't talk about it before they are confirmed, but he happens to be as you said a sitting United States senator, so he didn't have much of a choice. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR MAX BAUCUS (D), MONTANA: Honored, very humbled and it's an honor to be able to continue public service. I love service, like trying to help solve people's problems and this is a new challenge I very much look forward to.

BASH: China in particular --

BAUCUS: China is one of the most, if not the most important relationship in the country, in the world. I very much want to help the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: He was downplaying the idea that, you know, that he has a background regarding China. He certainly doesn't have the same kind of background that a Jon Huntsman did. But he, according to sources close to him, has always had a very strong interest in China, obviously as chair of the Finance Committee. He deals with a lot of issues that are related to China.

And the other thing that is interesting is that his sort of political hero is the late Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, who left the Senate, he was also senator from Montana and went to be ambassador to Japan. So he sort of sees a nice symmetry in being able to follow the footsteps of somebody who he respected so much.

TAPPER: The posts of Japan often go to big political names, Mansfield, Mondale. We have a Kennedy there right now. Dana, am I being Machiavellian when I look at the fact that, OK, you remove Baucus from here. You can get help holding on -- Democrats get help holding on to the seat, all the other stuff, Mary Landrieu gets some help for her 2014 seat. Am I being a little paranoid?

BASH: You know what, sometimes I think that we reporters give politicians too much credit but this time, I don't think we are. I think you are totally on to something. First and foremost because the idea I'm told came from Joe Biden. He and Max Baucus are very good friends. They had lunch in November and he first brought up the idea then, just to prove your point. Jim Messina who of course was in the White House for President Obama, he ran his campaign, he happened to be Baucus' former chief of staff, he pushed the idea.

TAPPER: He is a crafty devil itself.

BASH: I will tell you, in the halls of the Senate today, Jake, Mary Landrieu was openly talking about the prospect of becoming energy chair and what it means for her home state of Louisiana, again running for re-election and Ron Wyden, I was joking about it with him an hour ago, the idea that he could potentially take over the finance committee. It really is not -- you're not too cynical. In this case, this really is a possibility.

TAPPER: Just when you think you're too cynical, no.

BASH: We'll prove that it's a fact.

TAPPER: Dana Bash, thank you so much. Much appreciated.

Up next on THE LEAD, it's got a dance number, heart warming plot twists and several characters with Grinch-like teeth, which has some on the internet asking how in the world could "Love Actually" not be considered a holiday classic? We'll delve deeper into what's become a contentious Christmas debate in our Pop Culture Lead, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. A little dessert for you now in the Pop Culture Lead, it's been ten years since "Love Actually" hit theaters, the ensemble movie that features pretty British people and Billy Bob Thornton, searching for romance at Christmas. Then since the release, two camps have merged. Those who think "Love Actually" is a new Christmas classic and those forced to watch it next to people who think it's a new Christmas classic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): In a season of classic holiday movies, starting of course with "It's A Wonderful Life."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.

TAPPER: And "Miracle on 34th Street." In the '60s a couple TV specials were added, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas." But now slightly newer batch of movies are starting to crowd in on the family favorites, does Will Ferrell's "Elf" deserve a place on the DVR? Probably not.

But make no mistake, the most heated debate about Christmas movies centers around the film "Love Actually." Does "Love Actually" deserve to be considered a new Christmas classic? Film critic, Chris Orr, says emphatically no.

CHRISTOPHER ORR, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE ATLANTIC": It's just a very strange conception of love that sort of starts with physical attraction and then goes immediately to the happily ever after.

TAPPER: Associate Editor Emma Green says yes.

EMMA GREEN, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE ATLANTIC": The strength of a movie like "Love Actually" is that to me it feels more personal. It feels like something I can see in my real life potentially, hopefully, and something that feels fresh.

TAPPER: Orr and Green write for "The Atlantic." Earlier this month, an office conversation turned into a heated debate. "Love Actually" turned into a battlefield.

GREEN: Basically, every one of our co-workers got up from their cubes, stopped what they were doing and surrounded us fight club style as we debated loudly over the merits of the movie.

ORR: It was awesome. Everything ground to a halt for 5 or 10 minutes.

TAPPER: They took their debate to the web with dueling articles. Their work garnered more than 50,000 Facebook shares and I confess, I was one of them. The argument is brutal and fun. The now decade old British film "Love Actually" follows nine story lines, each about some version of affection, young love, familiar companionship, ill-timed lust, truly joyful anticipation. Orr argues the plot lines are not only implausible, but superficial and even immoral, far from the virtues expected this time of year.

ORR: I think that "Love Actually" is not merely an unromantic movie, but an actively anti-romantic movie. It is almost a series of money shots, like a mash-up of the first and last scenes of a variety of other romantic comedies without any of the middle part in which people actually get to know each other and fall in love.

TAPPER: Green says love is the spirit of the season, no matter how sloppy its expression.

GREEN: They don't have time to show all of the four hour conversations that eventually lead people to fall in love intellectually. It's more about that magic chemistry moment that allows people to fall into the crush zone and I think that's a very valid and magical, wonderful thing to show.

TAPPER: It should be noted that "Love Actually" got mixed reviews when it came out, including Orr's own scathing write-up. ORR: It was even worse than I remembered it. The nightly scene was even creepier than I remembered it.

TAPPER: For the record, "A Christmas Story" was originally panned, but I guess you could say that criticism didn't stick. Now that movie is an undisputed classic right alongside "Love Actually"? Actually, I'm not going to take a position in this great debate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: You don't even have to go far to find "Love Actually" and just in case you didn't know, it's streaming on Netflix.

It will go down as one of the most successful books and movie franchises in modern history and soon Harry Potter could be casting fans of the theater under his spell. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter book series, confirmed that she's working on a new stage play about the boy wizard.

The play will focus on Potter's life before he went to Hogwarts and will also feature popular characters from the book series. Rowling will be a co-producer of the project, but she will not write the script. We're not sure who gets that lucky honor. The stage play is expected to open in London in 2015.

Make sure to follow me on Twitter @jaketapper and also @theleadCNN, and check out our show page, cnn.com/thelead for video, blogs, extras. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I'll be back in two hours substitute anchoring on Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT" at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Mr. Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jake, thank you. Happening now, Obama on the hot seat, the president gets a grilling at the end of a bad year for the White House. He takes the most heat over NSA spying amid new snooping revelations. He signalled some changes are on the way.

General gone wild, an Air Force report reveals a top nuclear missile commander was removed from his post for boozing and boorish behavior abroad. We have the details.

And SeaWorld is reeling right now after a CNN film exposes its treatment of killer whales. First music stars canceled their performances. Now a new blow from some very important customers. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.