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The Situation Room

Interview With White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod; Leno, Politics, and Punchlines; North Korea Fires Another Missile; GOP Infighting Continues Over Supreme Court Nominee

Aired May 29, 2009 - 16:00   ET



Happening now: North Korea fires another missile and blasts U.N. members as hypocrites. We're tracking the communist regime's ominous new moves and warnings to the West.

Plus, Republicans at odds over the president's Supreme Court nominee. While Limbaugh and Gingrich screams racism, some GOP senators are pushing back.

And Jay Leno's finale as host of "The Tonight Show," it's no joke for many Americans, who like their politics delivered with a punchline.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm John King in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics, and extraordinary reports from around the world.


It's becoming an almost daily event, North Korea taunting the world with its military muscle and nuclear threats. The communist regime today fired yet another short-range missile, the sixth -- sixth -- since it conducted a nuclear test on Monday. And there are signs the country may be preparing for a new long-range missile launch.

We begin with our Pentagon -- Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what's the latest?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, you know, it's not for nothing they don't call North Korea the hermit kingdom, a country that the Obama administration is having a lot of trouble figuring out.


STARR (voice-over): U.S. military aircraft continued reconnaissance flights out of Japan, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived for a security conference in Singapore -- topic number one, North Korea.

North Korea is leaving the Obama administration still uncertain about Pyongyang's intentions, after days of missile launches, a nuclear test, and warlike statements from the most isolated country in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Their tone has been very belligerent over the last week, almost as if they're outraged at the international reaction. But it's still very unclear whether this series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests was primarily for domestic, internal consumption.

STARR: Pentagon officials say new satellite imagery of a missile research facility in Sanum-dong now shows missile trucks moving around, but no sighting of missile parts.

The vehicles spotted typically carry North Korea's long-range missile, the Taepodong-2, which is capable of hitting Alaska, if it actually works. Any actual launch could be months away. For now, in the wake of Pyongyang's claims of an underground nuclear test, the Obama administration is focusing on diplomacy.

IAN KELLY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: Our goal in this is to -- is to make sure that North Korea understands that they have -- they have made some wrong choices. And we want to get them to -- to reverse course.


STARR: And on his -- on his way out to Singapore, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear he thought it all needed to be handled in diplomatic channels. He says there's no crisis, and that he has no plans or intentions of sending more U.S. troops to the peninsula -- John.

KING: And, Barbara, after a nuclear test, there is a rush to test the air. Those tests help you try to understand the size of the device, the power of the explosion. Do we know anything about the results?

STARR: Very interesting. Several days into it now, there have been a number of flights by U.S. intelligence aircraft. They have collected samples. But U.S. officials say they still cannot come to a conclusion from the air samples they have collected, so they're continuing to work on it -- John.

KING: And we will keep watching.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us -- Barbara, thank you very much.

General Motors is getting more help from organized labor. The United Auto Workers today ratified a revised deal that will allow GM to cut its labor costs.

CNN chief business correspondent Ali Velshi at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan.

Ali, let's cut to the bottom line. Who's this deal good for?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: The deal probably gets General Motors a little closer to solving its problem.

It's not going to be enough to probably keep this company out of bankruptcy. We're expecting a bankruptcy filing some time between now and Monday, because that's the government-imposed deadline.

But the bottom line, John, is that, whether or not GM goes into bankruptcy protection, it's still going to have to negotiate some of its deals. So, the further it can get with the United Auto Workers, the better.

What this does is, it reduces the wage gap between unionized workers in the United States and non-unionized workers. Obviously, that has been a big issue, why non-U.S. automakers can make cars for less money in the United States.

The UAW is not happy about this. But, at this point, it's about saving jobs. And that's why they signed on overwhelmingly to ratify this new agreement with General Motors -- John.

KING: And, Ali, you hear this term prepackaged bankruptcy, that GM has been working on this, along with the administration's auto task force. How long? How long do we expect GM to be in bankruptcy?

VELSHI: Well, it could -- that's a very, very good question.

Look, they were trying to not get into bankruptcy in the first place, but they had to negotiate with major constituents, their dealers, the bondholders, the people that they owe money to, and the autoworkers. They made some ground with the autoworkers, some ground with the bondholders.

But it's not enough. So, they -- they were hoping to never go into bankruptcy in the first place. It could be two months. It could be three months. It could be longer. It's a complicated process, because they have to try and sell off those parts of the company that are worth money.

But you don't want to sell off the parts that are going to generate income for you. So, it's a very difficult position. It will definitely be two to three months, at a minimum, for General Motors -- John.

KING: Ali, in the community where you are, GM used to be "Generous Motors," because of the generous health care benefits...


KING: ... the wages, the overtime, the retiree benefits. Now many are saying this will be "Government Motors."

How does that go down with the autoworkers?

VELSHI: Well, under the -- under the plan leading into bankruptcy, the government could end up owning more than 70 percent of General Motors. Now, here's the thing. Around here, in the -- in the automaking part of the world -- and, really, there are plants all over the country -- autoworkers don't seem to share the same concern about government ownership of the company. They want to do what is going to preserve their jobs.

The bottom line is, it's not just autoworkers in communities like this. It's -- it's everything around it, the schools, the -- the supplies, the -- the suppliers, the people who serve the community. So, they are very interested in something that will keep these companies going.

A flat-out not-prepackaged bankruptcy could have been harder on these companies, General Motors and Chrysler. So, autoworkers around here tend to support the idea of government intervention into their companies. To them, it's about trying to save these jobs in these communities -- John.

KING: Survival. Ali Velshi for us in Dearborn -- Ali, thank you.


KING: And this is a huge story.

Tonight on CNN, Ali Velshi and Christine Romans explore the rise and the fall of the American auto industry and where -- where it might go from here. "How the Wheels Came Off: The Rise and Fall of the American Auto Industry," tonight, beginning at 8:00 Eastern. You don't want to miss it.

And time now for "The Cafferty File." Jack joins us from New York.

Haven't seen you in this position in a while. Hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, John, nice to have you with us.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has not been able to keep his mouth shut since leaving office, but former President George W. Bush has been largely silent, until last night.

Speaking in Michigan, George Bush repeated Cheney's claim that the enhanced interrogation program, what some people call torture, was legal and helped to get valuable information that prevented more terror attacks, and thus saved lives.

The former president told a crowd of 2,500 people that, after 9/11, he vowed to take -- quote -- "whatever steps were necessary to protect you." Bush said, after the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he wanted to know what means were legal to get information from the terror suspect.

And although Bush's message might be similar to Cheney's in content, the tone is very different. President Bush repeatedly insisted he doesn't want to criticize President Obama. And he did not specifically refer to the debate over Obama's decision to stop using harsh interrogation techniques.

In a departure from how these kinds of events were handled for eight years, Bush answered questions directly from the audience for almost an hour, instead of taking questions that had been pre- submitted ahead of time.

When he asked -- when he was asked what he wants his legacy to be, Bush said this -- quote -- "The man showed up with a set of principles, and he was unwilling to compromise his soul for the sake of popularity" -- unquote.

He got a standing ovation when he said that.

Here's the question: Have your feelings toward former President George Bush softened any, now that he's been out of office for four months?

Go to, and post a comment on my blog -- John.

KING: Looking forward to the answer. An interesting question.

CAFFERTY: Yes. Yes. We try.

KING: We will see you in a little bit. See you in a little bit, Jack. Thank you.

The president's Supreme Court nominee is dividing Republicans. Some of Sotomayor's harshest and most famous critics are getting pushback from members of their own party.

Plus, federal judges in the line of fire -- how they're protecting themselves as threats on their lives skyrocket.

And a royal brings a common touch to the United States -- Prince Harry on tour in New York.


KING: Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor is posing a bit of a dilemma for Republicans. Some in the party are coming down hard on President Bush's pick. But others are holding their fire, wary about criticizing the woman expected to be the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

CNN congressional correspondent Brianna Keilar is on Capitol Hill with the details -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, comments made by Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are getting a whole lot of attention, but Republicans here in Congress are worried about the effect they're having on voters.



KEILAR (voice-over): If Republicans inside Congress are cautiously critical of Sonia Sotomayor...

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: There are some troubling things that are going to going to have to be inquired into for us to do our job.

KEILAR: ... some Republicans outside the Capitol are anything but. Rush Limbaugh slammed the Supreme Court nominee.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: So, here you have a racist. You might -- you might want to soften that, though. You might want to say a reverse racist.


KEILAR: Using Twitter, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blogged: "A white man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw."

The comments drew a sharp rebuke from John Cornyn, the man responsible for helping elect more Senate Republicans. He spoke on NPR.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I think it's terrible. Neither one of these men are -- are elected Republican officials. I just don't think it's appropriate. I certainly don't endorse it. I -- I think it's wrong.


KEILAR: Republican strategist Ron Bonjean says the inflammatory comments are hurting the party's attempt to rebuild itself.

RON BONJEAN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, this is the last thing that Republican members want right now on Capitol Hill. I mean, they're trying to bring back the party. They're trying to boost their approval ratings.

And the last thing that they want to do is start to tear someone down and use words like racist.


KEILAR: (AUDIO GAP) argument over Sotomayor is part of a bigger argument that Republicans are having about what direction the party must go in to win elections -- John.

KING: Brianna Keilar tracking this fascinating story on Capitol Hill -- Brianna, thank you very much. And the president's Supreme Court nominee will head to Capitol Hill next week to start lobbying senators for her confirmation. But the White House is already out promoting Judge Sonia Sotomayor in earnest and firing back at her critics.

Joining us now, White House senior adviser David Axelrod from the White House Briefing Room.

David, thanks for joining us.

I want to get to the Republican criticism in a moment. But I want to start with one of these fascinating things that happens when you have a Supreme Court pick.

The White House is now reaching out to your supporters, your allies in the abortion-rights movement, saying, don't worry. She's with you. You have nothing to worry about, and, yet, in the next breath saying, the president did not specifically ask her about whether there's a right to privacy in the Constitution, whether she supports the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion-rights decision.

How can you tell people, don't worry, she's with us, if you don't know the answer?

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Well, I don't know what conversations took place.

I -- I know that the president had a conversation with Judge Sotomayor in his office. They discussed the Constitution, the court, her approach to judging. And he was very, very comfortable with what he heard.

And, so -- and -- and that's all I can tell you. I -- I don't think he questioned her on specific cases. I know he didn't.

KING: Did she volunteer?

AXELROD: And -- and...

KING: Did she volunteer that she shares his view of the Constitution on issues like privacy? That would be enough to answer it, I bet.

AXELROD: I think that he came away with a sense that she shared his -- his view of -- of the Constitution, of the rights that flow from it.

But I -- I don't think they had a specific discussion on that or -- or -- or any specific issue.

KING: You have more access to the president of the United States than just about anybody. I'm interested in his reaction, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, both calling Judge Sotomayor a racist. Rush Limbaugh went even further. I want you to listen to what Rush said the other day.


LIMBAUGH: So, here you have a racist. You might -- you might want to soften that, though. You might want to say a reverse racist.

And the libs, of course, say that minorities cannot be racists, because they don't have the power to implement their racism. Well, those days are gone, because reverse racists certainly do have the power to implement their power.

Obama is the greatest living example of a reverse racist. And now he's appointed one.


KING: David Axelrod, how does the first African-American president feel about being called a racist and about having the first Latina nominee for the Supreme Court called a racist?

AXELROD: Let me tell you what I want to focus on.

I want to focus on people like Senator Cornyn, who stood up and denounced that language today, as have other Republicans. I don't think Republicans want those kind of contemptible comments to define their party. And I don't think any of us want it to define our politics or our government.

It is particularly offensive, when you have someone like Judge Sotomayor, who represents the best of America, great American story, a wonderful career as a prosecutor, a big-city prosecutor, as a judge for 17 years, more experience on the federal bench than anyone who has been appointed to the Supreme Court in 100 years, and universally respected in the -- in the world of the law.

And for people like Rush Limbaugh -- and I don't know what he -- you know, he has his own experiences with the law. Maybe he makes his judgments based on that. I don't know. I don't know where it comes from, but it certainly doesn't represent the appropriate language, attitude, orientation.

And the fact that so many Republicans are coming forth to say so, I think, is a good thing for the country.

KING: Let's take the judge out of it for a minute. I think know the answer, but does the president of the United States care what Rush Limbaugh thinks of him?

AXELROD: Not particularly.

I -- I think the president is focused on (AUDIO GAP) appointed someone he thinks is going to be a sterling member of the Supreme Court. And he's going to work to get her nominated. And, you know, the president -- president has important work to do. So, I -- I don't think he's flipping on his radio to hear -- to hear Rush's fulminations.

KING: I want to let our viewers know, because of some tough weather here in Washington, we lost your shot momentarily.

But I'm going to try to ask you another question. David, if we lose you, I will apologize on the air.


KING: Robert Gibbs today, at the briefing, was trying to explain something. You know, the line that the Republicans have seized on the most was the Berkeley speech in which Judge Sotomayor said that she would hope that her experience as a Latina woman would give her perspective and perhaps understand some issues than a white man of -- who doesn't have that experience might understand. And I'm paraphrasing. That isn't her exact words.

Robert Gibbs today said something to the effect that her words were chosen poorly. Let's listen.


ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... with her about this, but I think that -- I think she would say that her word choice in 2001 was -- was poor, that she was simply making the point that -- that personal experiences are relevant to the process of judging, that your personal experiences make you -- have a tendency to make you more aware of -- of certain facts in certain cases, that -- that your experiences impact your understanding.


KING: For Robert Gibbs to say, "I think she would say her choice of words was poor" leads me to believe that, in the meetings, as you prepare her for these sessions with the senators and then the public confirmation hearings, that she's going to try to -- I don't want to use a pejorative statement -- she's going to try to better explain or redefine what she said or what she meant.

Help us understand.

AXELROD: Well, I -- I -- look, she will speak for herself. I'm not going to speak for her.

But, plainly, I agree with Robert. And, if you look at the sweep of Judge Sotomayor's life, her career, I -- I think it's very clear what she was saying. And what she was saying is the same thing that Judge Alito said when he testified, now Justice Alito, before the Senate, and talked about the impact of his immigrant family, and how that helped shape his world view, and it's part of what he brings to the bench as a judge.

She brings the amalgam of her experiences, that experience, the experience of coming from the -- a -- very difficult beginnings, to -- to -- to be a star student at Princeton, Yale, to be a -- a prosecutor. She brings the experiences of trying major homicide cases in the city of New York.

She brings the 17 years of judging. All of that is part of the package of who she is. And all of that will be part of the judgments that she brings to the bench. And I think -- I don't think anybody, any reasonable person, would -- would argue with that, or would think that that's a bad thing.

KING: Initially, several senior White House officials said that you would not bring in outside help for the nomination.

I understand Ricki Seidman is now offering some help you, some others outside. Ricki worked in the Clinton White House. She has extensive experience on Capitol Hill. She was the Sherpa, as we say here in Washington, I believe, for Justice Ginsburg when she was nominated back in the day.

Is reaching outside, to somebody with this kind of political and legal experience, a sign that you're expecting a tougher fight maybe than you thought at the beginning?

AXELROD: No, but we want to treat the -- the process with the respect that it deserves.

It's a -- it's a complex process. There's a lot required. And you want people who are paying a lot of attention to it. Ricki, of course, is part of our -- kind of our extended family. She was part of our campaign. And, so, we know her well. And we were happy that she was willing to help us out on this.

But we feel very good about -- about the prospects. The initial reaction to the judge's appointment has been very positive. I think the American people are excited about seeing her on the bench. And I -- I think, when the Senate gets through with its deliberations, that they're going to reflect that in their vote, as well.

KING: David Axelrod, thanks for your time from the White House Briefing Room...


AXELROD: Good to be with you.

KING: ... on an important and very rainy day here in Washington.


KING: David, thanks so much for your time.

AXELROD: Good to be here.

KING: The Taliban launches a deadly payback, escalating attacks. And a growing death toll creates more chaos in Pakistan.

And they're calling it a clash for cash -- a joint appearance by two former presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Will we see fireworks?

Stay with us.



KING: Serving on the bench has become dangerous work -- why a growing number of judges' lives are in danger and what's being done about it.

Plus, the health care debate -- will public sentiment translate into health care reform this year?



Happening now: Two men who were once among the most powerful in the world come together, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. A clash, or a conversation between ex-presidents?

Plus, a look at President Obama decades before his life in the White House -- what a photography captured by then and the nickname the president used to go by.

And peanut farmers with a message -- it's time, they say, to toughen up -- the surprising moves they want the government to make.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm John King. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

President Obama says he wants to sign a health care reform bill into law this year. A political shift since the last president who took on the issue could determine whether Mr. Obama gets his way.

More now from senior political analyst Bill Schneider.


WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): Congress is back in session next week, and President Obama is urging his supporters to turn up the pressure on health care reform.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we don't get it done this year, we're not going to get it done.


SCHNEIDER: The country had this debate 15 years ago. Has anything changed? Fifteen years ago, over 60 percent of Americans thought the federal government should guarantee health care for all Americans. They still do.

Health care reform failed under President Clinton. President Obama says, this time, it will be different.

OBAMA: And those who seek to block any reform at all, any reform at any costs, will not prevail this time around.

SCHNEIDER: Last time around, Harry and Louise frightened Americans about a government-run health care system.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm not comfortable with government-run health care.


SCHNEIDER: Americans may be getting more comfortable with government, given the loss of confidence in the private sector. More than two-thirds favor a program that would increase the federal government's influence over the country's health care system in order to lower costs and cover more people.

What if it would increase the government's influence over your own health care? Still, over 60 percent in favor.

A group of conservatives is broadcasting and distributing a documentary about the victims of government-run health care in Britain and Canada.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A nightmare. A bureaucratic nightmare.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Patients are actually dying as they wait for care in Canada.

SCHNEIDER: But government does not seem to be the bugaboo it was 15 years ago.

What about taxes? Do Americans want a health care plan that would raise taxes in order to provide health care for everybody? They're not sure. About half do, half don't.


KING: Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider there.

And there's new evidence that sitting on the bench can be hazardous to your health. Statistics show the number of threats against federal judges and prosecutors has shot up.

Here's our Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: John, when you think of high-threat jobs, you probably don't think of judges, but you should.


MESERVE (voice-over): In a courtroom, emotion often spills over into violence. Reggie Walton recalls his days as a superior court judge in Washington, D.C. JUDGE REGGIE WALTON, U.S. DISTRICT COURT: I used to call it the Jerry Springer Courtroom because there were so many fights that took place either outside or inside of the courtroom.

MESERVE: As a federal judge, Walton presided over the trial of White House official Scooter Libby. That case and others have provoked so many threats that U.S. marshals put surveillance cameras around Walton's home, and he has taken other protection measures he prefers not to disclose.

WALTON: You can't let it impede on what you do as a judge, but obviously you're concerned about your security and the security of your family, so you do take it seriously.

MESERVE: With good reason. In Chicago in 2005, authorities say a man whose case had been dismissed murdered a federal judge's husband and mother.

The number of threats against federal judges and prosecutors is rising -- 500 in 2003 and more than 1,200 last year. And it's expected to go higher.

BOBBY FAGAN, U.S. MARSHAL: Most of these individuals have a great deal of frustration and anger towards, in their view, how they didn't get their day in court and justice was denied to them. And in the federal court, it's the final forum.

MESERVE: Often, they have already threatened judges at the state or local level, where local police and sheriffs provide protection.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Police are everywhere here.

MESERVE: Four years ago in Atlanta, a prisoner wrestled a gun away from a deputy and went on a rampage, killing a judge and three others.

To prevent a similar incident in Louisiana, where Laurie White sits on the bench, only judges can carry firearms in the courtroom.

JUDGE LAURIE WHITE, ORLEANS PARISH CRIMINAL COURT: And you better have a strong gun. It's not an easy spot, and I think you do this job at your own personal risk. And the point is whether you depend on everyone else to protect you or whether you want to provide a lot of your own protection.


MESERVE: And it isn't only life and death that's at stake. The threats are often meant to intimidate and undermine the justice system itself.

The U.S. marshals who protect federal judges and prosecutors have opened a center that collects and analyzes the threats. They're also training state and local authorities to deal with them -- John.

KING: Scary statistics. Jeanne Meserve for us.

Jeanne, thanks very much.

Protecting your cyber life, everything from your bank account to your airline flight.

Also, Prince Harry on tour in New York.

And when Jay Leno ends his long running gig as "The Tonight Show" host this evening, will his political influence end too?


KING: Britain's Prince Harry is in New York right now on his first official visit to the United States. The younger son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana has visited Ground Zero and mingled with some tourists.

Let's get more now from CNN's Richard Roth in New York -- Richard.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Prince Harry had a very solemn day in lower Manhattan, the first royal visit by him. He's third in line to the throne. They're grooming him, perhaps, for the future. Certainly to get used to these types of statesman-like activities.

The first stop, Ground Zero. 9/11, who can forget, especially in this city?

Families who did speak to the prince were very touched by his conversations. One woman said that she can appreciate that he has lost a parent and that she lost her husband. They were very touched by the prince's visit.

He laid a wreath there, and then, in nearby Manhattan, he also went to Hanover Square, where British soldiers are honored and British citizens who died in 9/11, 67 of them. And he planted a tree there.

He's also visiting a VA hospital where soldiers have lost limbs, where special prosthetics are made. Harry served in southern Afghanistan. There's a soldier who lost both limbs near where Prince Harry was based who was expected at that ceremony -- John.

KING: And Richard, New York is used to big VIPs coming through all the time. So while this is a big deal for Harry, and I'm sure the images back home helpful to him, not minimizing it, but New York is used to things like this, right?

ROTH: Yes, I think the image which will be in the papers, on Webs today of him at Ground Zero will mean a lot to New Yorkers especially. They get a lot of dignitaries there.

One official with the New York government was saying the British and the Americans have fought in wars together and there's this bond. So, yes, ,no big deal, but a lot of traffic, probably, and a lot of security, and a lot of people yelling, "Harry! Harry!" on the streets down in lower Manhattan.

KING: "Harry! Harry!" All right.

Richard Roth for us in New York.

Richard, thank you very much.

The United Nations says its investigators will visit Gaza next week to examine whether Israeli troops and Hamas militants committed war crimes during their three-week conflict this past winter. The mission has also asked to visit southern Israel, where Hamas rockets fell.

Gaza has been sealed off since Hamas seized control there two years ago. Tunnels are used to smuggle in everything from food and fuel to weapons.

CNN's Paula Hancocks takes us on an extraordinary trip deep below ground.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Under the border between Egypt and Gaza, there's a hive of activity. We head down more than 50 meters to see one of the smuggling tunnels that feeds a thriving black market in Gaza.

(on camera): This is one of the hundreds of tunnels that go from Rafa the Gaza side to Rafa the Egyptian side where they can smuggle goods through.

Now, this one is still in the process of being built, and it's incredibly dangerous work to build these, as you can imagine. As we understand it, children have to do the digging itself because they're so small because they can access these very small places. And they get around about $100 a meter to dig and to take the dirt away. That may sound like quite a lot in Gaza terms, but this is incredibly hard stuff for children to try and bury their way through.

Now, the sort of things that come through here are foods, drinks, cigarettes. Livestock have actually been brought through, live animals into Gaza, petrol, diesel, anything that normal Gazans find difficult to get because of the blockade that Israel has on Gaza itself.

Now, Israel often targets these tunnels. It says that some of these tunnels are used to smuggle weapons, which is probably true, but many of these tunnels are very commercial assets. The amount of money a tunnel maker could get from this tunnel is incredible. It could cost $50,000 to $100,000 to build, but once it's built, to get goods from that side of the tunnel, Egypt, to here in Gaza, costs the one turn, $5,000. So there are a lot of people up there who are commissioning these tunnels that are making a lot of money out of this. Paula Hancocks, CNN, under the border between Egypt and Gaza.


KING: Wow, that's fascinating. A fascinating look there from Paula Hancocks.

Thank you.

The White House wants to hear from you. It's taking suggestions on how to make government more transparent.

Plus, Jay Leno exits late-night TV. How his 17 years as "The Tonight Show" host influenced our political culture.


KING: New twists in the president's Supreme Court nomination and an interesting suggestion on a White House Web site.

Joining us for today's "Strategy Session" are CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist, Hilary Rosen, and Republican strategist John Feehery.

Let's start with the Supreme Court. The White House today saying Judge Sotomayor didn't choose her words perfectly when she gave the big speech Republicans have seized on, Hilary, at Berkeley, where she said she hopes that her experience as a Latina and as a woman would help her understand some things better than a white man might understand them.

They're now saying, you know, she could have chosen her words better. Is that the right strategy, or should they have defended what she said?

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think they're probably saying they wish she had chosen her words better. But she is who she is. And she's got a 20-year history here, and her life experience is what she brings to the bench.

I think that people are going to see during the hearings a woman who has had a very vast amount of experience in life. And you know what? The American people don't resent that as much as the Republicans who are parsing the words, looking for, you know, an angle here and there.

They actually like the fact that there's somebody who's saying, you know what? I'm a whole person, I have judicial modesty, I'm going to rule according to the law, but I hear facts the way that I experience my life.

KING: Is that the right strategy, the wrong strategy? Obviously if they say she thinks she chose her words poorly, that means they have talked to her and she's going to deliver that message on Capitol Hill. JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: My own personal opinion is I think they have had the rhetorical high ground on this, and I think it was a sign of weakness that they kind of backed away from those comments that she made.

I don't think they were good comments for her, but I don't think that -- I think it really kind of helps them that Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh are out saying what they're saying. If you look at the Republican senators, they're saying, listen, we want to be very careful because we don't want to alienate a very important voting bloc in the future. And I think the Republican senators have a much better sense of what these means politically than someone like Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich.

KING: From your perspective, it's quicksand in a way, right? Because there are some legitimate philosophical issues that Republicans want to raise, saying we don't like this ruling, we think that's left of the mainstream. We don't like the way she said this, we think that's left of the mainstream.

Fair game, right? That's fair game.


KING: But the quicksand is, if they do it with the wrong tone -- they lost in the last election two out of three Hispanics in this country.

FEEHERY: There's a great case that she's involved in with the New Haven firefighters case. That's a perfect thing for Republicans to talk about.

Instead of calling her a racist, or talking about all these other things, focus on that case and find out where she really stands on it, because politically that would be useful. I think the path that the talk show hosts have gone through have not been actually helpful for the Republican strategy.

ROSEN: I think that's right. I don't think this is a woman who's going to be easily rattled in a hearing. She has, you know, after all, faced down a lot of tough litigants. And I think that she knows how to defend the decision she made. So, I think the only choice they have is to go with her decisions, because if they attack her personally, that's not going to fly.

KING: So help explain this mystery to me. If you look through her legal record, nothing directly addressing Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights decision. If you look at her speeches, nothing about Roe v. Wade.

So, there's some concern raised by abortion rights activists saying, we need to ask her specifically about that. We need senators to ask her those questions at the hearings.

The White House doesn't want that. They say the president never asked her that, but they're making phone calls to all these groups saying, don't worry, she's with you, she's with us, we're fine.

How? Based on what?

ROSEN: I think this is one of the things where the friends of my friends are my friends. And, you know, please, let's everybody get in line and support this person.

KING: But you're plugged into these people. Are they saying please support this person and turn down the volume, or are they saying the president didn't ask her, but she told a friend who told a friend that she supports this?

ROSEN: You know, there's no secret messaging going on, if that's what you're asking. I think what people are saying is, based on the kinds of affiliations she's had, based on the rulings she's made, they're confident that this is a good pro-choice vote.

KING: This opens the door for conservatives who want to ask her about abortion rights, about same-sex marriages, and about a whole number of other things. And the official White House line from Democrats and Republican administrations has been can't ask specific cases.

FEEHERY: But you know, I think it's fascinating. I mean, she's Catholic -- I think she's Catholic.

KING: She's Catholic.

FEEHERY: And she's from a Hispanic community that's mostly pro- life. And I do think that that it offers a fascinating -- is she going to be a David Souter for President Obama? We don't know the answer to that question. So I would like to withhold judgment and I'd love to find out the answers to all these questions. And I think that's where most of the Republican senators are actually...

ROSEN: I think you can be sure senators are going to, you know, not take cues from the White House about what they're allowed to ask and not allowed to ask. They're going to come up with their own questions.

KING: You think?

All right. Let's stand by for one second, because we like laughing. We sometimes have partisans sparring, but we also like laughing. And one of the guys who has done it for almost two decades now on "The Tonight Show" is Jay Leno.

Tonight is his last night in "The Tonight Show" chair. He's not going to disappear, but his last night in the late-night chair.

Kate Bolduan takes us back now to look at how Jay Leno has impacted our political culture -- Kate.


Well, politicians have definitely been the butt of his jokes, and have also used him and his show to make news themselves.

Either way, it's definitely been an interesting relationship over the years.



BOLDUAN (voice-over): Politics and politicians have always been go-to material for Jay Leno and his monologue.

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Oh, you see that video online of the wind knocking down Joe Biden's teleprompter at the Air Force graduation? Yes, he was talking and the wind knocked it down.

See, that's when you know you're talking too much, when even Mother Nature goes, "Shut up."


LENO: Just shut up.

And during his speech at a high school, former President George W. Bush said he's really enjoying the fact that he's no longer president.

Hey, join the club.


LENO: The 44th president of the United States. Please welcome President Barack Obama.


BOLDUAN: For 17 years, "The Tonight Show" under Leno has also been the go-to place for those in office trying to push policy and show their more human side.

LENO: Is it fair to judge so quickly? I mean...

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, look, we are going through a difficult time. I welcome the challenge. I ran for president because I thought we needed big changes, and I do think in Washington it's a little bit like "American Idol," except everybody is Simon Cowell.

LENO: Wow. That's rough. That's rough.

BOLDUAN: Throughout Leno's late-night career, his show also a must stop for the campaign trail.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, we have gotten where we are by being positive and talking about what this country needs to be.

AL GORE, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm running for president on my own.

BOLDUAN: Leno has even played host to some looking to launch political campaigns.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), CALIFORNIA GOV. CANDIDATE: And this is why I'm going to run for governor of the state of California.



BOLDUAN: Interestingly, Leno hits on politics more than most of his late-night colleagues. More than 33,000 jokes and counting for a little while longer.

A study from the Center for media and Public Affairs shows Leno has told as many than four times as many jokes about public figures than his successor, Conan O'Brien -- John.

KING: Fascinating and funny stuff.

Kate Bolduan, thanks very much.

And let's close, Hilary and John, on that point. He has reinvented late night as must-stop political.

ROSEN: He did. And I think his style, he doesn't gore to the jugular, but he doesn't let it go. You know, he lets people explain themselves, but his humor is kind of a -- he speaks from the constituent perspective, and I think people really get that. The way we make fun of politicians is how Jay Leno makes fun of politicians.

FEEHERY: And he's not going anywhere. He's going to an early timeslot, and he actually might become more relevant because more people might watch him. And frankly, that's the best part of his gig.

He's actually pretty funny and he's very topical. And like Jon Stewart, he really kind of gets at the things that people are thinking about, and that's where most people get their information these days about politics.

KING: Can you do -- he's not -- he doesn't go over the top at late night, but can you do it at 10:00? Can it be the same as what you do at 11:30?

ROSEN: He's pretty clean, so my guess is he can, whether, you know, that changes it or not. But, you know, the first ever sitting president of the United States going on late-night talk show was Barack Obama on Jay Leno. I can't imagine that happening with probably another talk show host.

FEEHERY: More politicians see this as a chance to look human, which is hard for them to do, but it makes them human and laugh at themselves. And frankly, at the 10:00 time hour, it's a better time for them to do it and get a bigger audience. KING: And laughter. The role of laughter in politics is -- we were all laughing during the piece, people with disagreements. We can come together and have a good laugh. And?

FEEHERY: Well, it's very important. If you remember Richard Nixon during "Laugh-In," when -- "Sock it to me?" I mean, this is very important.

And I'll tell you, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, they all had it. And I think Barack Obama has it too.

ROSEN: Take your job seriously, never yourself. Self- deprecating laughter is always the best for a politician, you know. And that's what we like to do, is laugh at them. So there's symbiosis there.

KING: And we will end the "Strategy Session" laughing and smiling.

John Feehery, Hilary Rosen, thanks so much for coming in.

Critics say something was missing from the president's first trip to Europe. We'll tell you how he's trying to fix that when he returns next week.

And later, portraits of a young Barry Obama. Look at that, glimpses of a future president three decades ago.

And George W. Bush and Bill Clinton together on stage. Will there be fireworks or is all forgiven?


KING: Jack joins us again with "The Cafferty File."

Hi, Jack.

CAFFERTY: John, the question this hour: Have your feelings toward former president George W. Bush softened any now that he's been out of office for four months?

Don writes: "While I do appreciate Mr. Bush keeping quiet and not criticizing President Obama, who's struggling to repair the nation after the eight years of Bush/Cheney, my feelings about George W. Bush remain the same. He was an unmitigated disaster for the nation and the world, a total incompetent who did more damage to the U.S. than anything that al Qaeda could possibly have done."

Wilson writes: "I always thought George W. Bush was a fine man. However, he allowed his administration to be overrun by reckless ideologues who cost this country dearly. And for that, he deserves all the blame he'll ever get."

Jim says: "My feelings towards the president haven't had to soften. I agreed with almost all of his policy decisions and think he did a great job. And if I could have voted for him a third time, I would have."

Patricia writes from Korea, where there's no shortage of activities these days -- what is that? Oh, all right. Welcome back:

"Just as he's unwilling to compromise for the sake of his popularity, I am also unwilling to compromise. No, my opinion has not changed. There are still thousands dead and an unneeded war. He deepened the hatred of the U.S. by allowing torture. And his actions and rhetoric toward North Korea gave them the incentive to build nuclear bombs. That is his main legacy and he'll have to live with it."

Sam writes: "No, he and Cheney continue to distort the truth. Bush said his interrogation program was legal. It was legal only because he told his lawyers to say that it was legal. He and Cheney simply bent the law to fit their agenda."

Brian writes: "I'm impressed with the way the former president handled himself in Michigan." That's where he gave the speech last night. "This is exactly the tone that Ed Rollins advocated in his column yesterday. We've had enough of the policies of hatred, finger pointing and blame."

And J. writes: "I think the only reason our feelings may have softened on former President Bush is because he's just that -- former."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at and look for yours there.

Did you pull the plug on me, John.

KING: I had nothing to do with it, Jack. I assure you that would not be me.


KING: I was enjoying it, though. There's no reason to pull the plug on those.

CAFFERTY: Well, somebody did.

KING: We'll make sure it doesn't happen next time. Thanks, Jack.


Happening now, an ally city's under siege. Pakistan in an all- out war with the Taliban as attack planners are caught on tape.

Plus, rare scenes of violence in Iran. After a bloody bombing, gunmen target a symbol of power ahead of a hotly contested election with a huge impact for America.

From the nation's power grid and financial system to your personal identity, President Obama moves to counter the growing threat of cyberattack.

And back when he was known as "Barry Obama," a fellow student took dozens of pictures. Decades later, they're on display.

Wolf Blitzer's off. I'm John King.


One after another, a U.S. ally's major cities are hit by deadly bombings, and Taliban militants say they'll keep it up until Pakistan calls off a military offensive. Some of those threats have been caught on tape.