Friday, January 05, 2007
Oprah leads; celebs, media follow

Oprah Winfrey and CNN's Jeff Koinange in South Africa.

South Africa is used to hosting all manner of celebrities. After all, who wouldn't want a photo-op with one of the world's greatest living legends, Nelson Mandela, the man who spent 27 years in prison and walked out forgiving his tormentors?

But this past week, one celebrity managed to steal the show under Mandela's watchful gaze, and the "old man" didn't mind that it was none other than U.S. talk show host, Oprah Winfrey.

You know the story ... Oprah's $40 million leadership academy for girls in South Africa has generated enough publicity to attract not only the world's media to the tip of Africa, but also Hollywood's elite.

Everyone from Tina Turner to Mariah Carey, from Chris Rock to Chris Tucker, from Mary J. Blige to India Arie, from Spike Lee to Sidney Poitier, and many more have made the journey to the small town of Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg.

Oprah, as usual, was in her element, working the crowds, showing off her "girls" wearing their new green uniforms. Oprah herself picked the uniforms out. (And yes, Oprah does have plans to open an academy for boys, too.)

Oprah, of course, asked everyone to bring a favourite book. Chris Tucker brought Rick Warren's bestseller, "A Purpose-Driven Life."

"It's helped me so much," Tucker told me. (By the way, my choice was the story of Mohamed Amin, the famous cameraman who filmed, among other things, the famine pictures in Ethiopia back in 1984 that led to the whole "We Are The World" campaign. It's appropriately titled, "The Man Who Moved The World." Amin died when the plane he was on was hijacked and later ran out of fuel, crashing into the Indian Ocean in 1996.)

Back to Oprah and her mission.

It's the day after the big event, and Oprah's people have lined-up a press junket for her. She has more than a dozen interviews to do this morning with stations as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles. CNN is first, at 9 a.m. local time, a live-to-tape interview with Anderson Cooper in New York.

Anderson Cooper interviews Oprah about her new school.

Anderson comes up on the satellite. He's stayed up well after his 10 p.m. show (it's now 2 a.m. ET) and he and Oprah are chatting away like old friends. The interview starts promptly. Oprah's great, Anderson's equally great. The whole interview is great. They say their goodbyes over the satellite and Oprah gets up to go get ready for her "sit-down" interviews with the reporters who are there in person.

I grab a bottle of water and hand it to Oprah and ask her if we could do a walk-and-talk in the school courtyard, something different. She agrees immediately: "Whatever you want, Jeff."

The cameras are rolling and we proceed. Oprah talks about why it was important for her to visit the homes of the girls to see what their background was. She spoke candidly about how she grew up poor, how difficult her childhood was, how she overcame certain obstacles and why she feels these girls will do the same.

"I have no doubt that this school will produce the future leaders of Africa," she said. "I'm so excited."

She's excited? Imagine the girls, by this time walking around the campus in little groups, confidence written all over the small faces. They're out of uniform, but wearing matching outfits -- some in orange tops with blue jeans and orange sneakers; others in green tops with blue jeans and green sneakers. It all looks so surreal, so pristine, so nice.

As Oprah and I walk, I feel as though I'm witness to a great event. A woman has come here to South Africa from far away on a mission to make things better, in her own way, one girl at a time.
Posted By Jeff Koinange, CNN Africa Correspondent: 2:41 PM ET
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Can Rehnquist's decisions be appealed?
A lot of us here at "360" began the day fascinated with the story about the newly-released FBI files on former Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. For those who have not read the details: For nearly 10 years, Justice Rehnquist had been taking a prescribed medication, Placidyl, to help with insomnia caused by his chronic back pain.

Apparently, the then associate justice was taking three-times the prescribed dosage. People who heard him on the bench began wondering about Rehnquist's slurred speech, and in 1981 -- five years before he was nominated for chief justice -- he checked into George Washington University Hospital to help get off the Placidyl. Withdrawal was difficult and caused delirium, with Rehnquist in one episode trying to escape the hospital in his pajamas because he believed the CIA was after him.

There are so many medical questions: How exactly does Placidyl work? What are the long term effects of it? How does one over-medicate with it? And how in the world could that ever happen to a Supreme Court justice? (It could be as simple as, if Rehnquist was asking for the medication, what physician would say "no" to a Supreme Court justice?) Who better to answer all these questions than our "360" MD, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who will join Anderson tonight at 10 p.m. ET.

And what about the broader legal questions? What about the many, many cases he ruled on during that decade when he might have been impaired because of the medications? Our chief legal correspondent, Jeffrey Toobin, points out there is no appealing a Supreme Court decision. After all, it is the Supreme Court, and it takes a majority of justices to make a decision. But Jeff also points out Rehnquist again raises the question of life-terms versus term-limits for Supreme Court justices. He reminds us that Justice William O. Douglas suffered a serious stroke toward the end of his legal career, and yet he refused to step-down. The law dictates the only way to remove a Supreme Court justice is impeachment. So Jeff will also join Anderson tonight to chew on all of this.

We've also spent a lot of time here talking about a remarkable story Anderson shot recently. It's about an army sergeant deployed to Iraq before his son was born. To be closer to his baby, Charles Monroe King began writing letters to him -- advice and from a father to his son: "Remember who taught you to speak, to walk, to be a gentleman. These are your first teachers my little prince. Protect them, embrace them and always treat them like a queen."

During his tour First Sgt. King wrote all of these thoughts in a journal for little Jordan. When you read about this in his wife's account in the New York Times and hear Anderson's story tonight, you'll no doubt be touched, as I was, by this father's love for his son.

Finally, later today and through the weekend I encourage you to read and comment on correspondent Jeff Koinange's blog post on his visit with Oprah at her new girls academy in South Africa. It is an amazing story: A good Samaritan flying across the world to provide education, hope and a future for kids who never guessed they'd ever see anything like this.

Jeff's post, which we'll publish later today, is a great preview of the hour special we are running Monday night, 10 p.m. ET. Anderson interviewed Oprah via satellite about what she is doing, and why, and we've had Jeff and his crew shooting stories of the girls' lives and what the school means to them. You'll see from Jeff's blog that our time with Oprah in South Africa will be one of those hours you'll want to share with others.
Posted By David Doss, "360" Executive Producer: 12:56 PM ET
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Hot Links: Military leadership shuffle
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Thursday, January 04, 2007
JFK's heir ... Mitt Romney?
We all know about the New York Democrat who may try to become the first woman president and the Illinois Democrat who may attempt to become the first African-American president, but what about Massachusetts Republican who's trying to become the first Mormon in the White House? We haven't heard so much about him.

But that's all about to change.

Former Governor Mitt Romney formed his exploratory committee yesterday, the first step in a presidential campaign. Romney's not a household name like the guys leading the pack for the Republican presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

But he's got one big advantage over them: He speaks the language of church folk ... the evangelical Christians who wield enormous power in Republican primaries.

Giuliani and McCain have long kept religious conservatives at arm's length. This year, they've been working hard to build bridges with evangelicals, but their efforts don't always ring true in the pews. They haven't championed social issues like abortion and same sex marriage and they don't seem particularly comfortable talking about their faith.

So there's a real ideaological opening in the top tier of the Republican presidential field, and Mitt Romney is ready to fill it. He's become an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, despite indications he may have supported different positions earlier in his political career. He's held meetings with top national evangelical leaders, and reached out to smaller Christian groups in the key primary states of Iowa and South Carolina. He's got the message on social issues that these groups want to hear.

But there's a catch.

Romney is a Mormon, and many Christian conservatives aren't comfortable with Mormonism. Michael Cromartie, an expert on religion and politics, told me many evangelicals see Mormonism as a cult. In a recent ABC News poll, 35 percent of voters said they're less likely to support a Mormon candidate.

Think about it. Apart from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the top Mormons in the news lately have been alleged polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and the fictional polygamist family on HBO's hit show "Big Love." Most Americans probably know next to nothing about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the roughly six million Mormons living rather ordinary lives in the United States.

So chances are Mitt Romney will have some explaining to do. He's used to it, and points to another famous Massachusetts politician: John F. Kennedy. As the first Catholic president, JFK's road to the White House was paved with a million questions about whether the Vatican would shape his presidency. He was finally compelled to declare that on matters of public policy, he didn't speak for his church, and his church didn't speak for him.

Expect to hear something similar for Mitt Romney, before too long.

So what do you think? Is America ready for a Mormon president?
Posted By Claire Brinberg, CNN Producer: 2:21 PM ET
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Hot Links: Dems assume power
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Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Convicted congressmen collect public pensions
The voice was unmistakable: Gruff, raspy, Rosty. And from his greeting, I knew this would be a story.

"Congressman Rostenkowski" is how the former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee answered his cell phone. Not "ex-con Rostenkowski," not "Mr. Rostenkowski," not even "Hey, I've been pardoned by Bill Clinton, Rostenkowski".

Nope, it's "Congressman."

And with good reason. Congress is still paying the chairman. According to the National Taxpayers Union, an organization that advocates for lower taxes, Rosty is making $126,000 a year from his federal pension. Not bad for a guy that went to prison after being indicted on 17 counts of, among other charges, embezzling public funds.

Now those same public funds pay Rosty. And the National Taxpayers Union is sick of it. The union sent a letter to the new leaders in congress. This letter was signed by a couple of dozen watchdog groups, from the left and the right to the middle, and it asked, in effect, why are we paying the pensions of congressional felons?

According to the Taxpayers Union research, 20 lawmakers over the last 25 years have been found guilty of serious crimes while in office. All 20 received, or are still receiving, congressional retirement benefits.

Randall "Duke" Cunningham and James Traficant are both in prison right now, and both collecting. "Duke" gets an estimated $64,000 a year. Traficant's estimated pension is $40,000.

The National Taxpayers Union is pushing Congress to stop this by adding simple provision to the law: If you are convicted of a serious crime while in Congress, you lose the taxpayer-funded portion of your congressional pension.

I wanted to ask Congressman Rostenkowski what he thought about this, so I got his cell phone number from a friend and called him. That's when he answered, "Congressman Rostenkowski." But the senior statesman apparently picks and chooses his topics these days carefully.

"What benefit is it to me?" he asked, before denying my request for an interview. For an ex-con who's getting an estimated 126,000 benefits a year from taxpayers, keeping quiet makes a whole lot of cents!
Posted By Drew Griffin, CNN Correspondent: 2:18 PM ET
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Hot Links: Amazing subway rescue
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Tuesday, January 02, 2007
A story that needs to be told
On the wall of my office are pictures of four young men. They are smiling the way people in their twenties do when the world is a river of possibilities stretching ahead. I have never met them, and never will, but I miss them every day.

Jesse Strong, Chris Weaver, Karl Linn, and Jonathan Bowling. Marines. Two years ago this month they all died in Iraq in an ambush on the banks of the Euphrates River.

As we pass the milestone of 3,000 fatalities in Iraq, it troubles me that there is simply not enough time in the world to tell the stories of all who have served and died in Iraq and Afghanistan, although their stories certainly deserve to be told and remembered.

So for the past few months I have been reconstructing the story of just these four men: Strong, Weaver, Linn and Bowling.

I've looked at their lives, their deaths, and the enormous impact they had on everyone around them. I have visited with their families; talked to brothers and sisters, friends, fiances, neighbors. I have read the military reports on how they died, and talked at length with other Marines who stood with them on that terrible night when the darkness erupted with bullets and rockets. I have stood in the homes these young men left behind, and knelt beside their graves.

And I have sat in my office here night after night, often until 3:00 in the morning, staring at their pictures and trying to write their story. It is easier at night, when no one is knocking at the door, no one calling, no e-mails; nothing to disturb the profound sadness that surrounds the events that took their lives.

History will judge the rights and the wrongs of this war, but whether you are in favor of it or not, you need to know the story of these men. Maybe because stories such as this help the war remain real and visceral; not abstract numbers and names flying through the news. Maybe because these four young men willingly did what their country asked them to do ... what we asked them to do ... and because they did it with courage, faith and honor. Maybe you should know their story, because we can't know all of the stories of all the thousands who have died.

So tonight we will tell the story of these four Marines. And once you know them, I suspect you too will miss them every day.
Posted By Tom Foreman, CNN Correspondent: 1:09 PM ET
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Hot Links: Some stories we're following today
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