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THE SITUATION ROOM

President's "Preferred" Option; Health Care Truth-O-Meter; Hurricane Bill Gets Stronger; The "Public Option" Tightrope; Under Fire with The Troops

Aired August 18, 2009 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Are they edging away or are they not?

That was certainly the hot topic today over at the White House press briefing.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, was right in the middle of it -- are we any clearer right now, Ed, at this moment, shortly after 5:00 p.m. on the East Coast, precisely where the White House stands?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not exactly, Wolf. It's a little confusing. But the bottom line is this. White House officials say the president is still in favor of a public option, at least for now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: (voice-over): White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs repeatedly said nothing has changed -- a public option is still the president's preferred choice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: (on camera): So when you say a public option is now the president's preferred choice, has been and is his preferred choice, (INAUDIBLE)...

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not saying that now. I'm saying -- I said that repeatedly and the president has said that repeatedly.

HENRY: OK. So is the public option an essential part of health reform?

GIBBS: I think the president answered that on Saturday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Actually, on Saturday, the president suggested the public option may no longer be his preferred or essential choice.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All I'm saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it -- one aspect of it.

HENRY: The bottom line -- Gibbs now says the president prefers the public option, but it will not be a deal breaker if it's dropped, which is different than earlier this summer, when the president didn't add that caveat.

OBAMA: So the public option is not your enemy, it is your friend, I believe.

HENRY: Addressing the American Medical Association in June, the president made it seem like a public option was not just his preference, it was essential.

OBAMA: I believe one of these options needs to be a public option that will give people a broader range of choices and inject competition into the health care market, so that force -- so that we can force waste out of the system and keep the insurance companies honest.

HENRY: Mr. Obama was just as adamant last month.

OBAMA: That's why any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange -- a one stop shop marketplace where you can compare the benefits, costs and track records of a variety of plans, including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: So why all the dancing around this one point?

The president, right now, is caught between conservative Democrats in the Senate, who suggest they cannot support a bill with a public option, and liberal House Democrats who suggest they can't support a bill that does not have a public option. It's very difficult to navigate. But as this gets closer and closer to a final deal, he's going to have to pick -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Because he's -- he's hoping something -- legislation will emerge from the House with the public option, maybe legislation will emerge from the Senate without it.

But in conference, I guess the preference would be, from the White House, that they get that public option in there?

HENRY: Right. But there's a very narrow window that's going to be closing fast this fall when Congress gets back in September. You still have to get all this through each chamber and then into that conference committee. And then they've got to move onto all other kinds of stuff -- appropriations bills, a climate change bill.

So there's a narrow window to actually strike a deal here. So at some point, the president is going to have to start pushing them and saying this is where I want to go.

Right now, they're leaving some flexibility -- Wolf. BLITZER: All right. It's a tough one for them.

Thanks very much.

Ed Henry over at the White House.

So who's got it right and who's got it wrong in the health care war of words?

The answer often lies in between.

CNN's Carol Costello and the researchers at PolitiFact have put together this fact check for all of us -- Carol?

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there are plenty of claims and counterclaims flying around out there. So we put them to the test using the Truth-O-Meter courtesy of the Pulitzer Prize- winning fact checkers at the "St. Petersburg Times."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: If you like your health care plan, you keep your health care plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: The Truth-O-Meter fact checkers say half true. Obama says the government won't interfere, but if health reform is passed...

BILL ADAIR, POLITIFACT.COM: Anybody who -- who has coverage now knows that their employer can change coverage if -- regardless of whether you like your insurance company, your employer can choose to change coverage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A trillion...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: Another claim to check, an ad from the Chamber of Commerce.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big tax increases, even on health benefits.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: The Truth-O-Meter's verdict -- half true. One of the House bills has a tax increase for couples earning more than $350,000 a year and one Senate committee is considering a tax on the most expensive health plan -- Cadillac plans, they call them.

So why only half true? ADAIR: People who saw the ad might get the impression they were going to have to pay higher taxes, when, in fact, the vast majority of Americans would not have to pay higher taxes as the plan stands now.

COSTELLO: Another fact check -- has AARP endorsed the health reform plan?

OBAMA: AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare.

COSTELLO: PolitiFact's Truth-O-Meter -- barely true. The AARP supports health care reform and has praised a Democratic bill in Congress, but an endorsement?

No.

JOHN ROTHER, AARP: Well, we're waiting to see what changes continue to be made.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO: The Truth-O-Meter folks tell us there's plenty of stuff out there that needs fact checking. If you have a suggestion, drop them a line at PolitiFact.com -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Carol, thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday, we showed you this video. This is a man in Phoenix, Arizona, carrying an assault rifle to a protest outside President Obama's speech. Police say he was just one of about a dozen demonstrators who were carrying weapons.

In Arizona, you see, anyone allowed to have a gun can carry it in public as long as it's visible. And the man who had the semiautomatic rifle slung over his shoulder said he was doing this because it's legal and he thinks others should do it more often.

Just what we need -- people wandering around with assault rifles slung over their shoulders at events where the president of the United States is present.

This is the second time in as many weeks that weapons have been seen near presidential events. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire last week, a protestor had a gun strapped to his thigh.

Gun rights advocates say they are exercising their Constitutional right to bear arms and protest.

But critics say it's a disaster waiting to happen. They insist that people should not be allowed to bring guns to an event where the president is, that it only distracts Secret Service and law enforcement, who ought to be focused on protecting the nation's chief executive. The Secret Service acknowledged the events in Arizona and New Hampshire. They say they're not aware of any others, though. When asked if the individuals carrying the weapons jeopardize the president's safety, they say, of course not, adding that they could never have gotten close enough to the president to put him in any jeopardy.

So here's the question: Should people who are allowed to carry guns be permitted near the president?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog.

Here's a hint -- no.

BLITZER: Well, those assault weapons, as you know, Jack, they have a pretty long range. You can fire them at a distance and those -- those rounds, they go pretty far.

CAFFERTY: They go pretty far and you can fire them fully automatic, which means they can squeeze off a whole bunch of shots in a very short period of time.

And the concern that I expressed yesterday when we ran this tape the first time was what if some loony tune in the crowd spots one of these weapons and decides to take it away from this guy?

It's not unheard of. It's possible. And then what kind of -- even if the president is not in danger, what kind of other tragedy might ensue from something like that?

It just doesn't make any sense to me.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty, thanks very much.

Get ready. You're going to be getting a lot of e-mail right now.

Under fire in Afghanistan -- we have an amazing report coming up. We're going to put you on the front lines with the U.S. troops, take you inside an ambush. An extraordinary report. You have to see this.

Also, Hurricane Bill is out in the Atlantic, but it's likely to get a lot stronger. We're tracking what may soon be a very powerful storm.

And health care fears in the 50 plus generation -- why tens of thousands right now are quitting the AARP and what it might mean for the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Poppy Harlow is monitoring some of the other important stories incoming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now -- Poppy, what do you have?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, authorities in rural Northeast Georgia right now are searching for the last of a pack of wild dogs they believe killed an elderly couple in rural Georgia last Friday. They rounded up 11 dogs yesterday. Today, they spotted four more. Investigators say it appears the woman was fatally attacked during an evening walk near her Lexington, Georgia home. Then her husband was apparently mauled to death when he went out to look for her.

Meantime, a man in Lake Elsinore, California got quite the surprise when he was relaxing on his front porch. An 11 foot snake slithered into his front yard on Sunday night. He called animal control, of course, to pick up the 50 pound Burmese python. The first officer arrived, then he called for backup. They wrangled the snake into a truck and took it to a shelter.

And protesting for the right to smoke indoors?

About 1,000 people rallied in a park in Ankara, Turkey against the country's-month-old ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and cafes. Many were owners and managers of those restaurants and cafes who say the ban has seriously hurt their business. They want the government to allow customers to light up in special smoking sections indoors. The government, though, Wolf, says it won't back down on that new ban.

And finally, police in Northwestern Beaumont, Texas have sealed off a retail area struck this afternoon by what some say was a possible tornado. Police dispatchers say a little more than two hours ago, they began getting reports of damaged roofs on several department stores in the area. No deaths are reported, but there an unspecified number of injuries as a result. And the area suffering, really, the worst damage, covering about three blocks. There was a minor gas leak in Macy's that forced the evacuation of that part of the shopping mall -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Pretty disturbing pictures, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

Hurricane Bill is still out there in the Atlantic, but is getting stronger and stronger and may soon develop into a major storm.

Let's go to our severe weather expert, our meteorologist, Chad Myers.

He's at the CNN Hurricane Headquarters -- Chad, what's the latest forecast that just came in?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Just up to 110 miles per hour, Wolf, up from 105 last hour. And it's gusting to 125. A very well- defined eye right here.

As I put it into motion, this storm travels on up very close to Bermuda -- within a couple of hundred miles from Bermuda. Now, that is not a direct hit. If this thing is that far from Bermuda -- a couple hundred miles -- that might make winds of 40 to 50 miles per hour in Bermuda. That is no problem for that island nation. But the number you see -- four, four, three -- that means that that could be a category four. That is the forecast -- a category four hurricane by tomorrow afternoon.

Now we're going to talk about what we think for the U.S. -- is there any potential for the US?

And I would say sure, 1 to 2 percent, still not out of the question. But there's not a single computer model that brings it here. Atlanta, Canada you may not be out of the woods yet. As this storm makes the big swing, you may be clipped by the storm, especially Newfoundland, as you stick that far out into the Atlantic -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll watch Bill with you, Chad.

Thanks very much.

As swine flu fans out around the world, the push is on to educate people on how to avoid it. But you can't stop irony. This British actor's job was to teach Internet audiences how to keep from spreading the virus.

Guess what?

He's come down with it himself.

And an election less than two days away in Afghanistan -- the Taliban goes on a violent rampage. Just ahead, we'll have a gripping report from the center of the chaos.

NICK PATON WALSH, CHANNEL 4 NEWS CORRESPONDENT: This is what they've been agonizing (INAUDIBLE) about. The base is now under a persistent heavy attack. It appears now to have been going on for about 30 minutes or so. We've no idea when it's going to stop.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Republicans are calling it a deal breaker. Some Democrats say they can't back a health care reform bill without it.

Is the Obama administration now moving away from the so-called public option -- a government-run health care plan?

Let's discuss with Linda Douglass.

She's the communications director for the White House Office of Health Reform.

Linda, thanks for coming in.

LINDA DOUGLASS, WHITE HOUSE OFFICE OF HEALTH REFORM: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: All right. Confusion erupted because on Saturday, the president said the public option was what he called "a sliver of his plan." On Sunday, the secretary of Health and Human Services says the public option was not an essential part of all of this.

And now the White House seems to be saying this is what the president's bill wants.

Clarify precisely where the public option stands.

DOUGLASS: Nothing has changed, Wolf. What the president has said, what the secretary has said, what the administration has said over the last several days is that what's important to the president, what's important to health reform legislation for the American people is that it lowers costs and increases choice and competition. Around the country, there's very, very little choice for many people who try to seek to buy health insurance. What he wants to do is put out there available and affordable health care options for those to people who don't have insurance or who are underinsured and might work for a small business and not have access to affordable options.

So what he said is that's the goal. The goal is to lower costs, have more choice and competition. And he's always said that the public option is a very good way to achieve those goals.

BLITZER: That's his preference, as they -- they say at the White House.

Congressman Anthony Weiner, he was here THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday. He says health care reform won't pass the House without the public option. But Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, he said earlier today on CNN that there simply are not enough votes in the Senate to pass health care reform with the public option. I guess that explains the confusion out there right now.

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, part of the confusion, too, Wolf, is that it's August, Congress is not even in session. They're not sitting around writing legislation right now and voting on provisions and amendments. Congress -- members of Congress are out around the world, they're out around the country talking to their constituents about the crisis in the health care market. So they're not sitting around acting on legislation right now.

So what happens is there's kind of a -- a tea leaf reading process that goes on. But nothing has changed. We're saying -- the administration, certainly the president -- exactly what he's always said, which is these are the goals, lowering costs, increasing choice in competition. And this is a good way to get to that...

BLITZER: How does...

DOUGLASS: That's what he's always said.

BLITZER: How does health care reform, whatever language is passed in the final version, affect the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States?

What is the White House stance on that? DOUGLASS: Well, you know, there's nothing in any of the bills that would cover undocumented immigrants with health reform legislation. I mean the president clearly has said that he understands our immigration system is broken. But there's nothing in any of the bills that would -- would provide health insurance or health coverage to undocumented immigrants.

BLITZER: They would still be allowed to go to emergency rooms for health care.

DOUGLASS: Well, that's -- that's existing legi -- that's existing law already. I mean there's already laws on the books that say if somebody comes in for emergency treatment, you treat them. But there's nothing in the health reform legislation that would extend any of these benefits to -- to undocumented immigrants.

BLITZER: A lot of Republicans are saying if you really want competition, let the health -- health care industry, if you will, the insurance companies, compete across state lines, not only operate within a state. That would create competition. We heard this from Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, among other Republicans.

Is the White House on board in letting health insurance companies go national, if you will, and not just operate within states?

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, I mean this is a -- an argument that we've certainly heard from the Republicans for many years. You know, we've been watching for 16 years for something to happen to try to relieve the rising cost of health care and try to extend insurance protections to Americans, who sometimes are denied coverage because they get sick.

This is an idea that certainly has been out there, that former Representative Armey and others have embraced. You know, different states have different consumer protections. So naturally there would be some concern about what level of consumer protection you'd be getting if -- if that were to happen.

But these are ideas that have been around for a long time, certainly from Republicans and...

BLITZER: But is the White House open to it?

DOUGLASS: Well, you know, these are -- what the White House wants to do is create affordable options for all Americans. And what we want to do is make sure that there are extended protections from all Americans -- from the 12.5 million people who were discriminated against because they had pre-existing conditions. Those are the insurance regulations that you would get with health insurance reform.

BLITZER: Linda Douglass is the communications director for health reform over at the White House.

Linda, thanks for coming in.

DOUGLASS: Thanks -- Wolf. BLITZER: He was a familiar face at CNN for decades -- we're talking about the journalist Robert Novak, who died today after a long battle with cancer. And coming up, we remember his life and his distinguished career.

And later, the Taliban attacks only days away from an historic election in Afghanistan. A correspondent finds himself embedded with U.S. troops and inside a Taliban ambush. This is an extraordinary must-see report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, he's at the center of the investigation into Michael Jackson's death and he's now speaking out for the first time.

Also, more on the murder of a Florida couple known for adopting special needs children. Now we're learning some of those children witnessed the deaths.

And she refused to rule on a stay of execution because it was after office hours. The defendant was put to death. Now this appeals court judge is on trial herself.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We have an extraordinary report that's come into us from Afghanistan, where Allied forces are under severe attack only two days ahead of an election pitting the president, Hamid Karzai, against the ex-foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.

Insurgents are trying to create chaos. A Taliban suicide bomber today struck a NATO convoy near Kabul, killing eight people and wounding dozens. That came hours after mortar rounds struck the presidential palace compound. And the U.S. military now says two American troops were killed today in a roadside bombing in Eastern Afghanistan.

Reporter Nick Peyton Walsh takes us inside an ambush with the troops as they face constant attack.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK PEYTON WALSH, ITN CORRESPONDENT: Two a.m. -- en route to one of America's most besieged outposts. The pilots won't land in this valley, except on the darkest of nights, when they're escorted by gunships. The Taliban often lie in wait in the darkness of this remote valley. The gunships fire a missile into the hillside -- a warning shot.

Outpost Keating is the furthest reach of American power, surrounded by mountains near the Pakistani border -- a landing so difficult, the pilots worry their rotor blades could clip the hillside. This is the only way in or out of a tiny base originally built to bring aid to locals. The valley has turned hostile since, but America stays to fight. And now, it's not sure why. The hills all around offer beauty, but also constant, deadly attacks.

CAPTAIN PORTER, U.S. FORCES: We're surrounded now. We're sitting in a bowl so we're constantly under observation.

WALSH: Captain Porter leads a few dozen pen pinned down among the sandbags. They don't have much contact with the locals, apart from when they shoot at their base.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've probably had over 35 contacts with the enemy since we've been here, just under three months. So they're keeping us on our toes.

WALSH (on camera): Why are you here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My boss told me to come here.

WALSH (voice-over): An Afghan Army patrol returns to base from the hills. They're accompanied by Latvian soldiers who are training them as part of NATO. Life here is a waiting game. And then, the very worst happens. One moment, an idyllic morning; the next, an ambush.

The Latvians fell onto our cameraman, who put it so close, a fragment hit his leg. There's a rush for cover. We don't know where to run or which hill these shots are coming from.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bravo, go!

WALSH: The Afghan soldiers return fire blindly at the base. But the American gunners inside the base wait, looking for the insurgents. Soon, they see it -- a muzzle flash. This is how the war goes here, a few pot shots from the Taliban met with overwhelming American firepower.

(on-camera): Well, this is what's agonizing (INAUDBILE). The base now is under consistent, heavy attack. It appears that it's been going on for 30 minutes of so. No idea when it's going to stop.

(voice-over): We get back into the base but another attack soon follows. They mortar insurgent positions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Firing right from that spot, just general douche baggery. They take pot shots at us. I mean nothing special. They're just trying to (INAUDIBLE) with your life.

WALSH: (INAUDIBLE)

Not really. That is not my job to ask that question. Right, Hart? Asked the question of why I'm here you don't ask that question right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [EXPLETIVE DELETED] nope. You don't ask any questions. You get in trouble for asking questions. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mercy, what's up, dude?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not a damn thing.

WALSH: But the Latvians, who suffer no serious injuries in the attack are angry. They saw three men climbing in the hills earlier, but couldn't do anything. The men had no weapons but could have hidden them in the rocks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rules of engagement and our hands are real tight. You can't just shoot at anybody or somebody cause you're suspicious.

WALSH: The Afghans also broke a key rule, returning on the same road they went out on, making easy forth militants to ambush them. America's exit strategy involves doubling the size of this army in just a year, but will it be a match for experienced insurgents?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They want to build the quantity rapidly and I understand why. There's a lot of area to cover, you know? But if you go very fast in quantity, that is just -- you can't achieve any quality.

WALSH: Captain Porter debriefs the Afghans, the local police complaining they don't have any bullets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is impossible. I don't have ammunition.

WALSH: They also discuss Thursday's presidential elections. The voting booths will be right next to where the ambush was. They know what sort of day it could be.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need to put this in positions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need to look at how many sandbags we are going to need and how much wire we are going to need. What we know today is just a sample of what we will continue to see through elections. I know my friends need bullets. I know my friends need bullets. We've got to get out of this place if it's the last thing we ever do

WALSH: So much of the tortuous wait inside stone bunkers, watching here a Vietnam film "Hamburger Hill" it echoes past military failures as nothing but time to kill.

That night, they are woken by an explosion and gunfire.

Sleeplessness, dark, they have to stay alert. But where a similar attack hit the canteen, a keg and worker were flung across the room and badly hurt. The base was built by a reconstruction team years ago hoping to rebuild in the area. They weren't put off by the skeletons of the last occupation here. This soviet armor ambushed decades ago. But now, it's so hostile, they are not decking near the people at all or winning any hearts and minds and want to use their men in another safer area where they can interact with locals, a change of strategy being discussed across NATO here. For now though, at Keating, the surreal standoff continues. If they leave, they give the Taliban a small victory. If they stay, they get hit. And until someone makes that choice for them, all these men can do is wait.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Amazing report from ITN's Nick Peyton Walsh, a really courageous journalist.

In the tug-of-war over health care reform is President Obama tough enough to pull the parties toward reform or push them toward a compromise? Paul Begala and Alex Castellanos, they're standing by live.

And we will share our memories of conservative columnist and former CNN co-host, Robert Novak, dead today at the age of 78.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We at CNN received the sad news earlier today that we lost a long-time friend and colleague, the journalist and commentator, Robert Novak, died after a year-long battle with brain cancer. CNN's Tom Foreman looks back at Bob Novak's storied life and career.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Bob Novak was in high school when he got his first reporting job. He worked his way through several Midwest newspapers and eventually landed in Washington, D.C., where his dogged pursuit of leads and rapidly expanding list of contacts led to an early break from a competitor, Rowland Evans.

ROBERT NOVAK, JOURNALIST AND COMMENTATOR: It was a news column six days a week. He couldn't do it himself. He told them. They told him to get a partner. I was then 31 years old. And that was the verdict of the birth of the Evans/Novak column.

FOREMAN: Rowland Rolly Evans and Robert Novak wrote Inside Report for 30 years on everything from Watergate to Iran contra. The pair earned respect and fear from official Washington.

TED TURNER, FOUNDER OF CNN: We should be on the air at 6:00 as predicted.

FOREMAN: So, in 1980, when Ted Turner had this idea for a 24- hour news network, Evans and Novak were there, reporting, solid old- fashioned reporting was the core of all of his programs and there were many.

He was at the convention, digging up stories.

NOVAK: I have been told by the Reagan people that both Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford will come to the hall tonight.

FOREMAN: Confronting the powerful.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was a litany of questions.

NOVAK: Yes, but that was one of them.

BUSH: I understand, but it was one of three or four and I had about 30 seconds to answer. So give me -- the answer is I want to keep the platform the same.

FOREMAN: And taking no prisoners on the political battlefield.

NOVAK: Why would you laugh over the death of an American serviceman?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, don't be a demagog. I did not laugh. Got it in for Tom Braden. Good night from crossfire.

NOVAK: On the tape, you laughed.

FOREMAN: But those who worked with him give a very different picture of the off-screen Bob Novak.

SAM FEIST, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: He was a really warm-hearted guy, a neat guy, who cared a lot about the people that worked with him, cared a lot about the people who worked for him. And if you were a friend of Bob Novak's, you couldn't have a better friend.

FOREMAN: In 2003, he wrote a column about the existence of nuclear weapons in Iraq that named a covert CIA operative. The search for his source resulted in the resignation of the vice president's chief of staff, Louis "Scooter" Libby. In 2005, Bob Novak left the channel.

NOVAK: I want to thank CNN for making this network available to me for 25 years, never censored me once, ever.

FOREMAN: Bob Novak was a man who fiercely enjoyed life. His nickname, "The Prince of Darkness" was not invented by his enemies but by his friends, of which there were many. They knew that his pessimism about politicians never clouded an unbounded optimism about his country and his profession.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And let's remember Bob Novak with two CNN contributors, Democratic strategist, Paul Begala and Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos.

Paul, you worked with him for a long time. Give us a thought.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes. I sat across that table from him on Crossfire for many years, before then, he covered me when I worked in the Clinton White House, a real reporter in addition to being highly opinionated, pretty rare nowadays. Very old school that way. Very fiery. Alex and I were laughing about this he was on crossfire one time and during commercial break, I continued badgering and heckering (ph) Alex and I was angry, bob was angry at me. He said, we call these guys guests for a reason, they are our guests and you are being rude to our guest and he was right. Bob could be rude but he was very old school though. And you know, he was my friend. We disagreed about almost everything but we found a little common ground, common love for sports a common faith in the catholic tradition. And a great love for politics. I will miss him. He was my friend.

BLITZER: He was a really seminal figure in Washington because his columns were widely read and very influential.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: For today's generation, Bob Novak was a blogger before there was the internet. He was with "Evans and Novak" that was one of the first must-read, 1963, here's what's really going on behind the scenes. Imagine if you had the internet. He was a trail blazer in that regard, politically, too, yes, he was the dark side of the conservative movement, the prince of darkness, and not only I think was it an important part of the Reagan coalition, remember, he also was one of the biggest champions of Jack Kemp and sunshine conservatism, supply side economics, leave Americans some money in their pockets and they will do amazing in things. So there was a lot about Novak. He changed this country and for the better.

BLITZER: I always used to see him at sporting events, Redskins games, Wizards games, always there. He loved the University of Maryland, even though he went to the University of Illinois. And whenever he would see me and I have known him for 30 years, he would always take me aside and say, you know, I was in a fraternity at the University of Illinois, and I was in the fraternity at Buffalo and woe give me the secret handshake. It was always vintage Bob Novak. He was always proud of that connection the two of us shared.

Let's talk a little bit about health care reform because there was a column that Roger Simon, the political writer wrote in Politico. Does Obama have the guts and he says this, "In her former life as a presidential candidate, Clinton warned voters that Obama would let them down. She warned them that when the going got tough, he fold up. She said it was not just a matter of Obama lacking experience. That was the least of it but that he lacked the strength, the toughness, the will to get the job done." There are some progressives or liberals out there right now who are deeply worried in order to get something through, he will abandon the so-called public option.

BEGALA: This is a gut check for President Obama. He is up against some very formidable forces. In fairness to Hillary Clinton, that was during the campaign, within days of her getting out of the race.

I went to see her privately, I generally don't reveal private conversations, but that was a question I had for her. Do you really think he is tough enough to be president, not just to win the campaign or whatever, to be the president she said absolutely, I have no doubts now having seen him go through that campaign.

This is not his first gut check. His father abandoned him and grew up with a mother on food stamps. He overcame that to become the president of the United States. He took on the Clinton brand and beat them. So he has proven in the past real toughness. I guess I would counsel my Republican friends or Mr. Simon and the journalism community, as Mr. Bush, President Bush would say, don't misunderestimate this president.

BLITZER: Will he have the guts, the toughness, to force, the conservatives, moderate Democrats and liberal Democrats to get together and push this through even if Republicans aren't there?

CASTELLANOS: So far, we haven't had any indication of that, Wolf so far concern that Barack Obama, Democratic Party that he is a policy peacenik. He is the kind of leader who wants to litigate arguments and not really stand up and fight and that he is -- Napoleon said he who defends everything defends nothing. And right now, Obama's coming across as someone who wants to please everyone but fight for nothing. And interestingly enough, if that's the case, he may end up -- the man who tried to be so unlike both Clinton and George Bush may end up being like them in the sense that he makes himself look weaker and smaller, some degree like President Clinton did at some time but alienates his own base, enthusiasm as President Bush did antagonizing the middle. He is defending everything and pleasing no one.

BLITZER: We will continue this conversation, guys, tomorrow. Thanks very much.

How to spread the word about how not to spread the swine flu. The government is now running a video contest on YouTube.

And there is another situation room, the one over at the White House. President Obama has been meeting there THE SITUATION ROOM with the former President Bill Clinton. Former insider tells us what really goes on behind closed doors in that situation room.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Fall and flu season only around the corner right now. Swine flu is of special concern to health officials this year. They have come up with an inventive way to try to get the message out of prevention. We asked our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve to tell us what the feds are up to. What are they planning?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Something fun actually. You know with swine flu posing a threat to young people, the question is, how do you get them to absorb messages about washing hands and covering cough? The federal government decided to have a contest on YouTube.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three years to leaving the bathrooms without washing hands.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you or anybody else in your family is sick, don't kiss them no matter how much you love them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Before you eat, wash your hands with soap and water.

MESERVE (voice-over): YouTube, always a cornucopia of humor, education, information and frankly junk is a platform for a federal government contest to create an h 1 n 2 swine flu public service announcement. There were more than 200 entries. Some are serious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nearly 100 million people died during the great flu pandemic of 1918.

MESERVE: Many are ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Helmets exist to keep the world clean.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: YouTube is a great communicator, a great way to get a message out and also a great way to use a little humor hopefully in a serious message delivery.

MESERVE: A panel of experts will select the top 10 videos.

SEBELIUS: You know Paula Abdul is available as a judge.

MESERVE: The winner of the $2500 prize will be selected by popular vote on YouTube.

Whether you're a fan of chick flicks, campus comedies, or animated features, movie musicals or horror films. You can't miss the message.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: A little takeoff on night of the living dead. A final winner should be chosen by this September just as flu season is expected to get underway in earnest. That is nothing to laugh about.

BLITZER: Nothing to laugh about indeed and we're getting closer and closer. Thanks very much Jeanne for that.

It's not just U.S. where swine flu is of great concern. Health officials around the world are trying to stop the spread of this pandemic. One public service announcement in Britain ended up with an ironic twist. Abbi Tatton is looking at this part of the story for us. Abbi, what happened?

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: This is the British event. It's the one that health authorities there came up with to try and stop the spread of swine flu. It features a man in an elevator doing everything you shouldn't do, sneezing and spreading his germs around. It is called, catch it, bill it, kill it. Take a look.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're all going down with bugs because the man in the blue jacket sneezed and spread his germs everywhere.

TATTON: Now, the message of this advertisement didn't prove effective for the actor involved. That actor, 30-year-old David McKuska has since contracted swine flu himself. What's more, he told the British newspaper that he might have been giving it to other people since he has been shivering, shaking and spreading it everywhere. He has reported to have made a full recovery.

BLITZER: Let's hope he does. All right. Thanks very much, Abbi.

They say they are retired, but they are still collecting pensions. In the next hour of THE SITUATION ROOM, broken government. CNN's Allan Chernoff investigators lawmakers who double dip.

Also, Michael Jackson's personal physician, he's been under intense scrutiny since the entertainer's death. Now, Dr. Conrad Murray is speaking out publicly for the first time.

Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack?

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: Should people who are allowed to carry guns be permitted near the president? Before I read the e-mails, I want to go back and take a look at picture of this fellow we were talking about yesterday in Arizona who was carrying this assault rifle over his shoulder. I mistakenly suggested that that weapon could be converted to fully automatic mode. It can't. In fact, fully automatic weapons have been prohibited for sale in this country since 1934. Although as we all know, if you have enough money and the right connections, you can get a hold of anything but I made a mistake where that particular weapon was concerned. I apologize. Now, the e-mails.

Al in New York writes: "On one hand, I love these guys. I'm no gun nut but I absolutely love the because I can defense of a gesture. I think it is a cool way to make a point. On the other hand, their point is pretty dumb. No one is going to take away their guns. An Obama administration is not going to roll back any second amendment rights. To think otherwise exposes these people as the nuts they really are."

Rich in McKinney, Texas writes: "Jack, the Secret Service isn't worried about it and neither should you be. You are making a mountain out of a molehill. It's the guns they can't see that worry them."

Kim writes: "The president of the president should not create a free zone. The presence of the President shouldn't restrict this just like it shouldn't restrict our ability to free speech, freedom of assembly, et cetera. Restricting our rights is something I would have expected from the last administration, not this one."

Jay in Toronto writes: "What kind of collective insanity does your country suffer from. You have gun-toting yahoo's parading around the president and yet you can't so much as bring a pair of nail clippers on an airplane. There is some kind of disconnect going on."

Jay writes: "Of course not, what a stupid thing to ask. I wonder what President Kennedy or Lincoln would have to say about this."

Ed says: "Do you know what's scarier than that? These people are allowed to vote."

Gordon in New Jersey writes: "Jack, anybody who feels the need to strut around in public showing off a gun obviously has inadequacy issues and should not be allowed anywhere near the president. Can't the secret service just be empowered to disarm these nut jobs, send them home with an electronic ankle bracelet and a dose of Viagra."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/CaffertyFile and look for yours there among hundreds of others -- Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Jack, thank you.

Happening now, the untold story inside the White House situation room. President Obama, former president, Bill Clinton, have been meeting there one on one. We are getting high level readouts on their talks and where their relationship stands right now.

The doctor, under investigation in Michael Jackson's death, speaking out for the first time. What's behind his bizarre online message.

A Texas judge on trial for refusing to hear a death row inmate's final appeal. Did she cost a man his life by closing her court at 5:00 p.m. Ed Lavandera has a new hour this hour.