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American Morning

Senate Seat Showdown; Israel Rejects Cease-Fire; Bank Heists Surging; President-Elect Barack Obama Demonstrates His Golf Skills; Analysts Debate President Bush's legacy

Aired December 31, 2008 - 06:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CO-HOST: We begin with breaking news out of the Middle East.
Israel has shot down a proposal for a temporary truce. The idea was that a cease-fire would allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. So, the Israeli offensive continues.

For five days now Israeli airstrikes have taken out Hamas government offices and smuggling tunnels. Israel has also knocked out part of Gaza's power grid. Yet, despite the bombardment, the Hamas rockets keep coming.

A live report from the war zone in about 12 minutes.

Kevin Bacon and his wife Kyra Sedgwick are the latest victims of alleged rip-off artist Bernie Madoff. Bacon's publicist says the couple invested with the man accused of the biggest scam in Wall Street's history, but they don't say how much they lost.

And they are ringing in the New Year on the other side of the world this morning. You are looking live at Auckland, New Zealand, the first major city to welcome the new year, 2009. The party carries on this morning with free entertainment for the thousands in attendance there.

Happy New Year.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CO-HOST: We begin with the dramatic and unprecedented showdown over the replacement for President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat. Yesterday, in an act of defiance, embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich named a lobbyist and longtime politician to fill the very Senate seat he stands accused of trying to consistently.

Blagojevich insisted it was his duty to fill the position and, in fact, state law mandates it, even though Senate Democrats are saying they will block any replacement he names. Blagojevich appointed 71- year-old Roland Burris. He was the first African-American to hold statewide office in Illinois when he served as comptroller back in 1983.

Burris tried to distance himself from the man who appointed him when he spoke to CNN's Tom Foreman.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROLAND BURRIS, FORMER ILLINOIS ATTORNEY GENERAL: What the governor's problems are, they're not my problems. I am not tainted by this appointment.

The governor followed the United States Constitution and the 17th Amendment to fill the vacancy. That's all that's there.


JOHNS: CNN's Ed Lavandera is covering the story.

Good morning, Ed.


You know, a lot of people are wondering -- a story that was already bizarre to begin with, many people expressing shock over just the latest twist in this story and how much more bizarre it's getting.


LAVANDERA (voice-over): The chutzpah shocks even the most passionate critics of Governor Rod Blagojevich.

GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), ILLINOIS: To not fill the vacancy would be to deprive the people of Illinois of two United States senators, to deprive the people of Illinois of their appropriate voice and votes in the United States Senate.

LAVANDERA: Blagojevich's lawyer had said the governor would not fill Illinois's vacant Senate seat, but there he is now, the scandal- tainted governor standing by his pick to become the next Illinois Senator, Roland Burris.

BLAGOJEVICH: Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man.

LAVANDERA: Burris is a former Illinois attorney general who ran against Blagojevich for governor in 2002, but the two quickly became friends. Burris was a key member of the governor's transition team.

Some Illinois Republicans describe Burris as a Blagojevich crony who has spent years working as a lobbyist. Between his wife, his firm and himself, he's donated about $15,000 to Blagojevich's campaigns.

BURRIS: The evidence that's been presented is pretty appalling.

LAVANDERA: But just a few weeks ago, Burris said the governor should be removed from office. He's not saying that anymore.

BURRIS: I am humbled to have the opportunity, and promise the citizens that I will dedicate my utmost effort as their United States senator.

LAVANDERA: The appointment sent shock waves across political circles in Illinois. Many expressing dismay, outrage. And one Republican official says the governor is a very confused person.

LT. GOV. PAT QUINN (D), ILLINOIS: It's time that he get the message the people of Illinois will not tolerate his antics any longer.

JAY STEWART, ILLINOIS BETTER GOVT. ASSOCIATION: This is really -- to some degree, is theater of the absurd. This is Governor Blagojevich's thumbing his nose at the rest of the world.


LAVANDERA: And Joe, as the press conference ended, or actually toward the end of it, Illinois Congressman and African-American Bobby Rush emerged from the crowd and essentially said that he supported Burris's appointment because he would be the only African-American senator in the Senate, and because of that he would support the move.

And then, as Blagojevich was walking out of the press conference, he kind of pointed to reporters and said, "Don't lynch the appointer." So injected into all of this, a racial aspect and component to this pick that has also kind of made this a more murky situation -- Joe.

JOHNS: A whole new dynamic for sure there, Ed.

Now, Roland Burris, when you look at him he's a very respected figure, well known in Illinois. Why would this guy even accept an appointment given all the controversy swirling around it right now?

LAVANDERA: You know, a lot of people are asking themselves that question this morning. "The Chicago Tribune" reporting this morning that Burris wasn't necessarily Blagojevich's first pick in this situation. But many people are wondering why would this man, who -- even -- I spoke with Republicans in Springfield yesterday who said he was a well-respected public servant when he held public office, and they are wondering why he would attach himself to this man at this point.

JOHNS: Well, the U.S. Senate is the most exclusive club in the world, or so they say.

Thanks so much, Ed Lavandera, for that.

And coming up in our next hour, at 7:40 Eastern, we'll talk live to the man appointed to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat, Roland Burris. Please be sure to stay with us for that.

ROMANS: All right, Joe.

So what happens now, despite the threat from Washington, can the Senate really refuse to seat the appointment of an appointee of a duly appointed governor?

Jim Acosta is looking into that for us. He's live in Washington this morning -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's a good question, Christine. It looks like a rough road ahead.

Senate Democrats here in Washington have long vowed to oppose any Blagojevich appointee. And after yesterday's surprising news conference, leaders here issued a blunt statement of their intentions, saying -- let's put it on the screen -- "Anyone appointed by Governor Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of the state of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus."

Now, President-elect Obama, yes, he has weighed in on this in Hawaii. He issued a statement supporting the Democrats and, again, called on Governor Blagojevich to resign.

But there was praise for Burris and some strong language offered up at the news conference from an African-American congressman from Illinois. You just heard Ed Lavandera mention that just a few minutes ago. Here's Bobby Rush.


REP. BOBBY RUSH (D), ILLINOIS: We need to have not just one African-American in the U.S. Senate; we need to have many African- American in the U.S. Senate. So, I applaud the governor for his decision and I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee.


ACOSTA: Now, Roland Burris has brushed off talk of his race and remained optimistic as of late last night, despite the deck apparently being stacked against him.


BURRIS: The problems that the governor has absolutely nothing to do with my servicing. And the United States Senate and the Democratic Caucus will recognize the same thing, that the appointment was legal and they have absolutely nothing to do with my ability to serve and represent the 13 million people of the great state of Illinois.


ACOSTA: Now, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has also come out against the appointment, saying he will refuse to certify it. But there are big questions about what anyone, including the senators here in Washington, can do to stop this.

Expect to hear some talk about a case involving Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. The Supreme Court ruled that the House couldn't stop his appointment. That was way back in 1969. So time will tell if this appointment goes to court as well -- Christine.

ROMANS: Jim Acosta.

Thanks, Jim, in Washington -- Joe.

JOHNS: Happening this morning, Democrat Al Franken's lead has grown slightly in the Minnesota Senate recount. He's now 49 votes ahead of incumbent Republican Norm Coleman.

Coleman's hopes are now riding on more than 1,000 uncounted absentee ballots that will be opened next week. Even if election officials declare a winner, the losing party is expected to challenge the outcome in court.

It's a vacation no one wants, yet millions of Americans are being forced to take unpaid time off. According to the federal government, 10.3 million people have been temporarily laid off by struggling universities, factories; even hospitals. The last time that many people were forced to take unpaid vacations was back in February of 1999.

And this morning thousands of moms are up in arms after the popular online Web site Facebook had started pulling down pictures of mothers breastfeeding. Facebook said it has no problems with pictures of mothers nursing but forbids fully exposed breasts on the site. The Web site says it only removes the images after others complain.

ROMANS: Are you on Facebook?

JOHNS: I am. Big time. Yes.

ROMANS: I would think the objectionable pictures on Facebook have a lot more to do than women breastfeeding.

JOHNS: Absolutely. I mean, there's crazy stuff there. And you know, that's the kind of thing that really gets people upset, too.

ROMANS: Yes. This is one of those things that working moms everywhere are up in arms about, when they see things like that.

JOHNS: Right. It's just -- yes, give it a break.

ROMANS: All right, Joe.

OK. Breaking news this morning, no truce in the Middle East. Israel says the bombing will continue as Hamas issues a death sentence for southern Israel.

The bloodshed and pleas for help for injured civilians live from the front line.

And bank robberies on the rise. What's behind the surge? We're going to have that story.

It's nine minutes after the hour.


JOHNS: Time now to fast-forward to some of the other stories you'll see here on CNN.

The House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing today to examine Bernie Madoff's alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme. The meeting comes as the House weighs major changes to the financial regulatory system. Critics say the Securities and Exchange Commission missed the warning signs and failed to act on a decade of allegations against Madoff.

A Washington lobbyist is suing "The New York Times" for $27 million. Vicki Iseman claims an article back in February gave the false impression she had an affair with Senator John McCain in 1999. The suit also names as defendants Time's executive editor, its Washington bureau chief, and four reporters. The newspaper says it stands by the story.

American Muslims and other demonstrators will be outside the White House today at 7 p.m. It's being called the New Year's Eve Candlelight Vigil for Gaza. The vigil is sponsored by the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections.

ROMANS: And there's breaking news out of the Middle East this morning. Israel has rejected a ceasefire and says it will continue its all-out war to root out Hamas militants and well-hidden rockets inside Gaza.

New video into CNN this morning from the Israeli air force. The airstrike apparently targeting Hamas rocket launchers in Gaza. Palestine sources say the bombing campaign has killed more than 375 people, mostly Hamas militants.

On the Israeli side, officials say more than 250 rocket attacks have killed four civilians, and more than a 10th of Israel's population is now in the range of those attacks.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is standing by live on the Israeli/Gaza border.

Paula, could there be a sign of a letup here?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, we've certainly seen it a little bit quieter when it comes to the Israeli airstrikes, but they have targeted 10 different sites, we understand, this morning alone.

They have been targeting those tunnels. Once again, that new video we have in from the cockpit of the Israeli fighter jet, you can see those tunnels that are being used by militants to transport food and cigarettes and weapons from Egypt into Gaza.

Now, most of those have been destroyed now, but we are seeing an uptick, really, in the rocket attacks from these militants into Israel. We've had at least 30 so far, and it's only 1:00 in the afternoon here. And these rockets are reaching further than they have done before.

You can see the Gaza border just about a mile behind me. And we certainly have been seeing an increase in the rockets, which obviously shows that no matter what Israel is doing at this point, it is not stopping the rockets, which it did say was its objective.

ROMANS: Paula, we've seen you here in this border location. Why aren't you in Gaza right now?

HANCOCKS: Well, the Israeli government won't allow us into Gaza at this point. They haven't allowed us in there since the start of their operations, and for a fair amount of time before that as well.

There is some development on that though. The Israeli Supreme Court has just ruled in favor of the Foreign Press Association, saying that it is wrong that Israeli is keeping international media out of there so we can document what is happening to the 1.5 million residents in Gaza. But at this point, Israel still not opening up those borders, and certainly not opening up the borders to allow much humanitarian assistance in either.

Some of the borders are being opened for a little bit of time, but it's a drop in the ocean, according to these aid agencies, the amount of medical supplies and food and water that is getting in to Gaza. Those figures you were just mentioning from the Palestinian medical sources, we now have up to 390 killed and 1,900 injured. You can imagine the state of the hospitals without enough medical supplies.

ROMANS: Well, later in the hour, we're going to be talking to two people inside actually to sort of find out what it's like on the ground living there during this crisis.

Paula Hancocks live on the border.

Thank you, Paula.


JOHNS (voice-over): Are banks sitting ducks?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They've turned into virtual cash machines.

JOHNS: Desperate people in a bad economy holding up the banks. A disturbing new trend. The recession robberies.

You're watching the most news in the morning.




ROBERT DE NIRO, ACTOR, IN "HEAT": Stay down! We want to hurt no one. We're here for the bank's money, not your money. Your money is insured by the federal government and you're not going to lose a dime.

Think of your families. Don't risk your life. Don't try to be a hero. Right now I want you to sit on the floor and put your hands on your head.

Anybody feel sick? Anybody got heart trouble?


JOHNS: That's intense.

Welcome back to the most news in the morning.

That was a scene from the movie "Heat," but in reality, there has been a spike this year in bank heists, with five robberies happening in one day in the New York City area alone.

So is the troubled economy to blame for this disturbing new trend?

CNN's Deb Feyerick is here.

Let's talk about it. What's up with the bank robberies?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, the movie that you just saw was particularly violent, but the NYPD says about 80 percent of robbers just hand the teller a note. And of the 20 percent who say they have a gun, often they don't even show it to the teller. But it is particularly serious.


FEYERICK (voice-over): Near New York City's famed Lincoln Center, a bank robbery takes place here in broad daylight. That same day, on busy city streets, this bank is also robbed. So is this one. And this one. And this one.

New York City's top cop, Raymond Kelly, calls Monday's robberies unrelated, admitting, however, they're part of a growing trend targeting banks.

COMM. RAYMOND KELLY, NEW YORK POLICE DEPT.: They've turn into virtual cash machines.

FEYERICK: Bank robberies in the city are up 54 percent from last year, with more than 430 committed since January of 2008. The police commissioner says it's not clear yet whether the bad economy is fueling the unusual spike.

KELLY: Banks don't look the way they did five years ago. They look different. And they look to some people very inviting as far as just going in, handing a note to the teller, and walking out with $3,000 in cash.

FEYERICK: But several former federal agents who investigated bank robberies tell CNN crime goes up when the economy is bad. And desperate people may see banks as a quick fix, especially in light of recent corporate bailouts, says this New Yorker.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the bank has all this bailout money, probably that's one reason they are thinking that they have money.

FEYERICK: Robberies are up across the country in places like San Diego, Houston and Maryland. (on camera): Banks seem pretty secure.


FEYERICK (voice-over): The head of the New York Bankers Association is meeting with the NYPD to review bank security and see what more can be done to discourage robbers.

SMITH: Are there enhancements? Obviously. Criminals talk to each other. They know what's going on. But typically they are apprehended.


FEYERICK: Another factor in all this is location. The banks recently hit were all near subway stations, making for a pretty quick and easy getaway.

JOHNS: That's scary stuff.

FEYERICK: It can be.

ROMANS: All right.

JOHNS: Thanks so much.

FEYERICK: Of course.

ROMANS: Deb Feyerick.

All right. With just hours left in 2008, we're looking back at the biggest stories of the year. Today we're revealing number two -- what goes up must go down. We'll tell you what also made the list.

Plus, a political game of chicken. Illinois's defiant governor named his choice to fill President-elect Obama's former Senate seat. Democrats want to block his appointment. But can they?

We're going to about it.

It's 21 minutes past the hour.



(BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SINGING): I'm goin' down, down, down, down.


ROMANS: Who knew The Boss was singing about the economy and the stock market, right?

2009 is now just hours away, but before we turn the page, we're looking back to the biggest headlines of 2008. That's The Boss singing "Goin' Down," appropriate for our number two story, the troubled economy.

On Wall Street, 2008 was all about how the Dow went down. Markets across the world saw huge losses this year and a true global recession set in.

And as you can see, a fuel retrospective of 2008 on You can see our top videos, a look back at the best entertainment news, even the year's best mug shots.

The recession has many Americans struggling to hold on to their jobs and houses. CNN photojournalist Oliver Janney introduces us to the Sampsons, a Maryland family who was at risk of losing their home until a friend had an idea, an idea that just clicked.


DANIEL SAMPSON, WAS AT RISK OF LOSING HOME: There was an outbreak of salmonella. I hate a tomato that happened to be contaminated and then I got sick. I was sick for so long, I ended up losing my job because of it.

E. SAMPSON, WAS AT RISK OF LOSING HOME: Three weeks after that I found out that I was eight weeks pregnant. That was a shocker.

D. SAMPSON: I called the police. I was like, "I believe someone stole my car. It's not in front of my house." Then they told me that, "Your car was repossessed."

E. SAMPSON: So I come to the door and there's this guy. And he's like, "Yeah, I want to put in my bid for the auction on December 8th. I want to buy your house."

JAKI GRIER, FAMILY FRIEND: And she was, like, "You don't happen to have $10,000, do you?"

D. SAMPSON: That was -- I believe it was, like, November 20th -- like November 19th.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She doesn't really do Internet stuff like I do.

D. SAMPSON: The sale date was for December 8th.

E. SAMPSON: There really was no hope for us.

GRIER: She was basically like, "Blog? What your talking about? Who cares?"

E. SAMPSON: It's not going to work.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So I started out with a blog.

E. SAMPSON: If we get $5, that's more than what we had.

GRIER: And I just sent links to people, and I said, "If you can't donate, then just share the link with somebody. If you think this is a hoax, I'm sorry. I can't prove it to you in the few days that I have. If you don't think it's a hoax, or you're willing to take a complete random bet on a stranger, help me out. You're losing a dollar."

E. SAMPSON: By Thursday we had $3,400.

GRIER: Another girl was, like, "My house is being foreclosed next week and there's no way I can get the money, but the least I can do is give you guys a dollar."

I woke up at 12:00 that Saturday and the PayPal account said $10,900. And at this point, I'm freaking out. And by the time I got to my computer to take it down, it was $11,000 even.

E. SAMPSON: Out of nowhere, you know, just the kindness of strangers and just people, you know, they came and provided for us.

D. SAMPSON: We want to let everybody know that we are definitely grateful.

E. SAMPSON: That's going to be our personal Christmas story that's going get told for every year for generations and generations to come.


ROMANS: That is a bailout I can get behind.

JOHNS: I know. What an amazing story.

ROMANS: Oliver Janney brought us that story. An incredible story.

I mean, that's the kind of, gosh, year end goodwill and people helping their neighbor out. Maybe all the banks and any kind of industry lining up for a taxpayer bailout should have to do it online and then we can choose if we want to send a dollar for the banks or the auto companies or whatever.

JOHNS: Yes. Wow. Super.


JOHNS: All right.

Bottom of the hour now. Let's update our top stories and breaking news out of the Middle East.

Israel has said no to a 48-hour truce and is calling up more reserves as the all-out war with Hamas threatens to stretch into the new year. The relentless bombing campaign has leveled several government buildings and now claimed 375 lives, according to Palestinian sources. But it hasn't stopped Hamas from sending rockets deeper into Israeli territory.

The Pentagon is reporting a shop drop in military deaths in Iraq this year. Three hundred and nine U.S. servicemen and women were killed there. That's down from 66 percent from last year. Now, officials credit the drop to U.S. troop surge and improved Iraqi security.

And here's your chance to witness history for free. The president-elect's inauguration committee is offering 10 people an all- expense paid, all-access trip to the swearing in. All that is required is an essay on what the inauguration means to you.

Details are on the inaugural committee's Web site at

Back to our top story.

And outraged Democrats now vowing to block Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's surprise appointment to the Senate seat he's accused of trying to sell. Blagojevich publicly insisted the charges against him should not prevent the states former attorney general Roland Burris from serving.


BLAGOJEVICH: Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man.


JOHNS: Mike Allen is the chief political correspondent with He joins me now from Washington.

Good morning, Mike.


JOHNS: All right.

So, let's just sort of start right now with what the Senate Democrats have already said, and we'll put it up on the screen for you. "Anyone appointed by Governor Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus."

So, if you read between the lines there, it sounds like they're going to try to keep him out of the Senate. Can they do that?

ALLEN: Joe, they can. They are determined to. And they're going to stick to this message.

I think Barack Obama is going to say as little about this as possible. But he's going to say the same thing. He's going to say that the Senate is completely within its rights not to seat him and that no one could serve under the cloud they would be under being appointed by this governor.

And the Senate Democrats have something up their sleeve. If somehow the paper work comes to Washington through some of the ways that you guys have been talking about, if somehow this choice is certified, Senate Democrats plan to -- and, Joe, this language will sound very familiar to you -- they say that they are going to pass a resolution that they're going to wait to seat the gentleman from Illinois until the rules committee -- and this is the oldest trick in the book in Washington -- study it.

It takes 90 days to study whether or not this action (ph) was conducted fairly and properly, was there a quid pro quo, did money change hands -- exactly how was this choice made.

JOHNS: So, it's buying time, in other words, assuming that something is going to happen to Blagojevich before that 90 days expires?

ALLEN: Joe, you're exactly right. And he hurt himself yesterday with what some people in Illinois are calling a "tantrum," going out there and saying, "Hey, I am the governor." Now, the "Chicago Sun- Times" this morning raises a couple of interesting motives, saying perhaps he was looking forward to a jury of African-Americans, and he wanted this in his back pocket. Or, maybe he's looking forward to his defense and saying, "I didn't ask for anything for this seat. Look, I gave it for free right here."

But he's also enraged the Illinois legislators. Impeachment is now on a faster track. Illinois officials say that he will be impeached and removed from office before Valentine's Day. So, the Senate Democrat leaders have enough time to pull off what they plan to and let the lieutenant governor, who they wanted to make the pick in the first place, go ahead and choose someone.

JOHNS: Let's talk a little about that issue of injecting race. Congressman Bobby Rush, who you know well, came out and made some assertions and statements yesterday. Let's listen to a bit of it.


REP. BOBBY RUSH (D), ILLINOIS: Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the U.S. Senate. I applaud the governor for his decision. And I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointor.


JOHNS: Now, OK, just to make it clear. We're pretty much injecting the issue of race into all of this. Mike, does that work?

ALLEN: Well, this was clearly part of the governor's plan. He wanted to name a Caesar's wife pick. He was basically daring them not to seat Mr. Burris, who, as you mentioned, is not only the first African-American official elected statewide in Illinois, one of only four including Barack Obama.

But, as a result of that, we can be sure that whoever is eventually named, we're told two things, it will certainly be an African-American and it will certainly not be Jesse Jackson Jr., who gets mentioned in all the stories. There's just too many complicated issues there. They'll probably pick someone young, fresh, someone who's beyond reproach but who keep an African-American in the Senate because now that President-elect Obama has resigned. Amazingly, there isn't one.

JOHNS: Yes. Have you heard any names thrown out there who will pass?

ALLEN: You know, one of -- it will someone that appeals to Republicans down state. That's how you keep the seat. One possibility is Dan Seal, who, Joe, you know, has run for the House twice, is an Illinois native -- a businessman there, a son of teachers.

It will be someone like that, an up-and-comer. And then, the legislature plans to make sure this doesn't happen again. They are looking at changing the law so that this is done by special election not by the governor.

JOHNS: Mike Allen of Politico -- thanks so much for that. And we'll be seeing you. Happy New Year.

ALLEN: Thank you, likewise.

ROMANS: Breaking this morning: Israel shooting down a ceasefire, air strikes leaving smoldering rubble on the streets of Gaza, medical supplies are running low, hospitals reportedly overwhelmed with suffering.

We'll talk to a journalist inside the war zone and put the politics aside. It's 33 minutes after the hour now.


ROMANS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. Updating breaking news out of the Middle East: Israel has shut down a proposal for a temporary truce. The idea was that a ceasefire would allow humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

For five days now, the air strikes have taken out Hamas government offices and their smuggling tunnels. Israel has also knocked out part of Gaza's power grid. But despite the bombardment, Hamas rockets are pushing deeper into Israeli territory.

We have an exclusive interview for you now. Freelance Palestinian journalist, Saud Abu Ramadan, joins us live on the phone from Gaza City.

And we're relying on you, sir, to give us a sense of what's happening there for you and your family. As you know, we are near the border. Our reporters there are on the border, but we're not allowed by the Israeli government into the Gaza Strip.

So, tell me -- what are you seeing there on the ground? What is it like, you know, being a father and a husband and a journalist in an area under siege?

VOICE OF SAUD ABU RAMADAN, FREELANCE PALESTINIAN JOURNALIST: Good morning, Christine, and good morning to the American people and everyone here.

I'm calling or I'm speaking to you from my house in western Gaza City. We are in a very horrible situation, not only me. There are hundreds of Palestinian families, mainly those who are living in the poor refugee camps over in the Gaza Strip. We have been living five days of ongoing unprecedented, intensive Israeli air strikes on every target that is suspected to be belonging to Hamas movements or Hamas government.

We, at home, we keep windows opened of our rooms and we all stay in one room, in fear of that other buildings close to us or near us would be bombarded by Israeli air fighters, and then the pressure of the explosions would smash the windows, and wound our children. So, we're staying away from windows, keeping them open, although the weather is very, very cold here in Gaza. It's raining (INAUDIBLE).

And it's not only me or my family. As I told you, there are hundreds of families in the Gaza Strip are suffering not only the fear of air strikes, (AUDIO GAP) also lack of electricity, lack of water, lack of food supplies, hospitals are full of casualties and bodies of people who are killed over the past five days.

The situation, in terms of the humanitarian aspects, is very, very difficult. I can evaluate it as horrible. We have not witnessed such a very difficult situation since the Israeli-Arab war of 1967. We have almost 400 people who were killed in the last five days.

ROMANS: Let me jump in here -- let me jump in here quickly. We want to get a sense of what is -- are you able to get out of the house? You tell a story about before the air strikes began really, it was one of your daughters, you have four children, one of your daughters, you say, saved your life simply because she wanted you to stay and eat breakfast. I mean, do you feel as though, you know, you're lucky to have escaped some of these days of attacks?

RAMADAN: Yes, right. Well, in the first day of the attack everybody was surprised, including me. You know, I was about to go the office, which is about five-minute drive from my house. And on the way, there were three or four security installations were bombarded. So, thanks to my daughter that she insisted to have breakfast with her before I leave my house to go to my office, otherwise, I could be one of the victims, one of the hundreds of victims, were either killed or wounded.

I can tell you that the situation is very difficult, very complicated. In terms of Hamas and rocket attacks, I think Hamas has continued firing deeply rockets inside Israel, and as if Hamas wants to say to Israel and to the world that the five-day Israeli intensive air strikes did not affect the movement and still so powerful, and it can also hit inside Israel. This would make a feeling that, you know, what Israel has done over the past five days has only destroyed buildings and killed people.

ROMANS: Right.

RAMADAN: Forty of them were civilian -- innocent civilians who were not involved in this war or in this conflict.

ROMANS: Saud Abu Ramadan, thank you so much for, you know, allowing us to sort of see what you're living like there, and what's happening from your personal perspective. Thank you so much.

JOHNS: Extreme weather on the move in parts of our country right now. Snow, wind and extreme cold are pushing into the northeast. Jacqui Jeras tells us how it could affect travel and all those New Year's Eve plans. It's 41 minutes after the hour.


JOHNS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning. A live look at Times Square in New York City this morning. And it's 32 degrees right now out there, but it could dip to 16 by the time they drop the ball and ring in 2009 tonight. And that tells me I know exactly where I will be, which is indoors.

Rob Marciano, you -- no way. Rob Marciano, he is off today. Jacqui Jeras is tracking New Year's Eve weather from Atlanta.

And, Jacqui, I do hope it's a little bit warmer there.

JACQUI JERAS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, not even a little bit, Joe. In fact, I would not want to be Anderson Cooper tonight. I will tell you that. I hope he's got a big parka, some ear muffs. You know, it's too cold to be cute because, you know, it may be 16 tonight, Joe, but when you add in the strong winds we're going to be dealing with, I think we're going to be lucky to have a windchill in the single digits. In fact, it could even be single digits below zero. So, that's how bad things are going to be.

You know, not terrible in New York City right now. But we've got a strong cold front along with low pressure moving on through, and we got some snow moving in, and those strong winds are going to be at their worst, at their peak, probably between about 4 and 6 o'clock tonight. The snow is already coming down. The New York Thruway will rough go of it here this morning. The heaviest snow right along that corridor and just to the south of there, not into New York City yet or into the big cities. But we think that's going to happen just a couple of hours from now.

New York will probably start out as rain changing over to some snow. One to three inches accumulation is expected. Boston, Providence, and also over to Hartford, you could see anywhere between four and eight inches. And these winds tonight could be gusting 60 miles per hour, not only ruining Anderson's hairdo, but we could seeing holiday decorations all over the place, and possibly, even, you know, some spotty power outages.

So, this is big storm we're going to be dealing with tonight -- Joe?

JOHNS: That's true. Well, it, certainly, won't ruin my hairdo, nonetheless.


JERAS: Yes, not a problem there. You'll be inside anyway.

JOHNS: You got it right. All right, thanks so much, Jacqui.

And don't forget, as she said, you can ring in the New Year right here on CNN. Join Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin. The fun starts at 11:00 p.m. Eastern. And I hope they brought their hand warmers.

ROMANS (voice-over): The president-elect at play.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): If you are to grade Barack Obama?


MOOS: C-plus?

DAVIS: Average.


ROMANS: Is Obama's swing worse than his bowling? Jeanne Moos grades his golf game. You're watching the Most News in the Morning.



RODNEY DANGERFIELD, ACTOR, IN "CADDYSHACK": Let's go while we're young.

TED KNIGHT, ACTOR, IN "CADDYSHACK": Do you mind, sir? I'm trying to tee off.

DANGERFIELD: I'll bet you slice into the woods, 100 bucks.

KNIGHT: Gambling is illegal at Bushwood, sir, and I never slice.

DANGERFIELD: OK, you can owe me.

KNIGHT: I owe you nothing.


ROMANS: A lot of us around here grew up on that movie. That's a clip from the classic golf comedy, "Caddyshack."

President-elect Barack Obama has shown athletic prowess on the basketball court; at the bowling alley, oh, not so much. So, you know, how he's holding up on the golf course?

Jeanne Moos has the story.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hawaii, a golfer's paradise, except when the press is watching your every drive, your every toss, your every bite, your every swing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's slacked (ph).

(on camera): You think you can do something for Obama?


MOOS: Would you?

DAVIS: I would love to have him here.

MOOS (voice-over): But, unfortunately for this golf pro at New York's Chelsea Golf Academy, Obama is out there, probably bent out of shape at the press's scrutiny of his golfing. Something every president has had to endure, golf is a game that doesn't take orders from even the commander-in-chief.

The little white ball ignored the president as did the cab that parked itself in front of President-elect Barack Obama's golf cart and had to be shooed away. At least the public showed him more respect.


MOOS: Obama shushed the crowd so as not to disturb his golfing buddies.

About that swing of his, we showed it to our pro.

(on camera): If you had to grade Barack Obama.

DAVIS: C or C-plus.

MOOS: C-plus?

DAVIS: Average.

MOOS: Apparently, there are issues with his posture and his swing pass.

(on camera): He's going out here and going like that.

DAVIS: That's pretty good right there.

MOOS (voice-over): Beginner's luck that soon went bad.

Like a certain someone in Hawaii, the president-elect did have some nice shots.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT: That's pretty good, right?


MOOS: When a lady in the crowd yelled, "Better than your bowling," President-elect Obama agreed, saying much better. And just as he used body language to urge the bowling ball to stay on course, he used body language in vain on the golf ball. So what if Barack Obama is no Tiger Woods -- at least we never saw his ball end up in the woods.

As for all those divots -- wait a minute -- that's not divot, that's the president-elect's BlackBerry, an addiction even stronger than golf.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


ROMANS (voice-over): Ball -- and gall. There he stood steeped in scandal.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He broke his own word, not that that really means anything.


ROMANS: And the man that the brazen Illinois governor picked for Barack Obama's Senate seat is here, live on AMERICAN MORNING.

Plus, countdown to the big moment in Times Square.


KATHY GRIFFIN, COMEDIAN: What's your middle name? Do you have a weird uppity middle name?


ROMANS: Hey, Kathy Griffin, have a little respect for a serious newsman.


GRIFFIN: Hey, who should we drunk dial?


ROMANS: You're watching the Most News in the Morning.


JOHNS: Welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

There's just 20 days left in the White House for President Bush. He's finishing his second term with historically low approval ratings. But many inside his inner circle are still singing in his praises. For more, we turn to CNN political contributor and senior writer for the "Weekly Standard," Stephen Hayes, in Washington.

Hello, Stephen, and Happy New Year almost.


JOHNS: All right. I'm good. So, let's just get right to it. Laura Bush, among others, has been asked, "What do you think will be the legacy of President Bush?" And she was asked specifically whether she thinks President Bush's administration will be looked upon as a failure. Let's listen to what she said.


LAURA BUSH, U.S. FIRST LADY: I don't really feel I need to respond to people that view it that way. And I think history will judge, and we'll see later.


JOHNS: Well, there you go. And when you listen to that, that's pretty much what the administration is saying on its way out. Do you think they have a pretty good case here?

HAYES: Well, she better defend him, right? I mean, if not your wife who?

JOHNS: Sure. They have a hard time.

HAYES: If my wife wouldn't defend me -- exactly. Yes. I think this is basically the case that we're going hear for the next 20 days and sort of a little bit for the past month, that history is going to look at the Bush administration with much better judgment than the current set of circumstances would have us believe, you know, with approval ratings as you point out, 28 percent.

And I think there's some truth to that. I think there are things that we're likely to learn as time passes that will reflect better on the Bush administration, things like the policies they put in place to keep us safe for seven years since September 11th. Nobody would have thought that was possible in the days after September 11th. So, I think there's probably some truth to that.

JOHNS: And when you say to keep us safe, what you're talking specifically about is the fact there hasn't been another catastrophic attack on the United States?

HAYES: Right. I mean, if you go back -- I went back just a few days ago and looked at some of the reporting in the news reports in the days after the September 11th attacks, and it's really remarkable to read the kinds of stories that we were seeing, the predictions about a catastrophic attack in the near term future. You had polls that showed 80 percent of Americans and higher thought we're going to be subject to a new attack.

And I think the Bush administration can rightly take some credit for preventing another attack, and for the policies as controversial as they sometimes been, that have led to keeping us safe.

JOHNS: Now, another thing that gets thrown up as a failure of the Bush administration is the issue of Hurricane Katrina. A lot of people, certainly, have weighed in on that. Among them, former White House communications director, Dan Bartlett.

We have a full screen of something he said in a "Vanity Fair" article: At the end of the day, I think the divisiveness of this presidency will fundamentally come down to one issue, Iraq and Iraq only. In my opinion, there weren't weapons of mass destruction. I'm sorry that's about Iraq. I think the public's tolerance for the difficulties we face would have been far different had it felt like the original threat had been proved true."

So, there you go. That's something else the administration is saying. Now, on to the issue of Katrina. Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the 2004 campaign calls the aftermath of Katrina, essentially, "a tipping point for the administration." He says in that article, "The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public."

Do you think, really, they are ever able to sort of rebound, if you will, from the issue of Hurricane Katrina and how the whole thing was handled?

HAYES: You know, I really don't. I mean, in an interesting way, I think those two issues: the issue ever Iraq and the issue of Katrina are related because what you saw in the aftermath of the major combat in Iraq on the ground was a real difficulty to get an understanding of what was going on. The fact that there was an insurgency to get in front of the insurgency and to quell it, you know, at that times having even Don Rumsfeld, among others, denying that there was such an insurgency.

And so, you had a growing sense, I think, among the American public that the administration just didn't get it or was not competent to deal with these things, and what Katrina did, I think, on the domestic side was in some ways confirm that sense that the American people were getting, you know, we had elected this president, George W. Bush as a competent president. That's what he ran on in 2000 in many ways, having, you know, fixed education in Texas and run as somebody who could really bring the country together, work with Democrats.

And I think both of those things, postwar Iraq, and then finally, Katrina, helped make people think, "No (ph), maybe not."

JOHNS: Great. Thank so much, Stephen Hayes. At the end of the day, a lot of people are going to say it was all about keeping the United States safe, which George W. Bush did. Thanks so much.

HAYES: Thanks, Joe.

ROMANS: All right, Joe.