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Interview With New York Congressman Charles Rangel; Alabama School Bus Accident Kills Three; O.J.'s New Book Scrapped

Aired November 20, 2006 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everybody. Glad to have you with us.
There's some important news coming into CNN all the time. Tonight, we are choosing these top stories for a more in-depth look.

The "Top Story" in the war: bringing back the draft. Tonight, hear from the congressman who has ignited the controversy, from his critics, and from the young Americans who are volunteering to serve.

The "Top Story" in school safety: a deadly bus accident in Alabama. It is raising issues every parent and every driver needs to worry about. Should school buses have seat belts and air bags?

And, then, on to the "Top Story" in crime: too hot to handle? The inside story of why O.J. Simpson's new book and TV special were just dumped.

We have chosen the Iraq war as tonight's "Top Story."

The bad news just goes on and on and on. Car bombs today targeted a police checkpoint and an Iraqi armed convoy. At least 60 bullet-riddled bodies were discovered in Baghdad alone.

A new CNN/Opponent Research poll shows, only 33 point of the American public still support the war. But look at this. That same poll also shows that 54 percent of Americans think the U.S. can still win the war. The question is how.

Well, the Pentagon is reportedly considering everything from pulling out to a big increase in troop strength. But with the military already stretched thin, one congressman says the best way to beef up the military and to do it fairly is to restart the draft.

We asked senior correspondent Jamie McIntyre to look at whether that's possible


JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With Senator John McCain leading the charge for more U.S. troops in Iraq...

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Are we winning? And I think the answer is no.

MCINTYRE: ... Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel is renewing his call for a return to the draft.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: Having our young people commit themselves to a couple years in service of this great republic, whether it's our seaports, our airports, in schools, in hospitals -- and, at the end of that, to provide some educational benefits -- it's the best thing for our young people and the best thing for our country.

MCINTYRE: While U.S. commanders insist sending more American troops is not the answer, they concede they really couldn't maintain a much bigger force in Iraq than the 150,000 there now. The U.S. military is simply too small.

GENERAL JOHN ABIZAID, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: When you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain -- sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.

MCINTYRE: There are some 1.4 million active-duty troops in the U.S. military, but less than half, roughly 500,000, are ground troops. And, of that, four-fifths, about 390,000, are either deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, returning home, or getting ready to go back.

But the Pentagon, the administration, most members of Congress, and virtually all U.S. commanders agree, a return to forced conscription would be expensive, unnecessary, and would undermine the all-volunteer force that's been performing superbly.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We just need to get more people to join, better benefits, better pay. I think we can do this with an all-voluntary service, all-voluntary Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.


GRAHAM: And, if we can't, then we will look for some other option.



MCINTYRE: Congressman Charles Rangel originally said he planned to introduce legislation to revive the draft when he takes over as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee next year. He's now backpedaled a bit, but still says he would like to have hearings on the subject to show that he thinks the current system is unfair.

But no one at the Pentagon -- or on Capitol Hill, for that matter -- gives the legislation much of a chance for passage -- Paula.

ZAHN: Jamie, thanks so much for the update. Now, despite that chorus of criticism that seems to be coming from all corners, Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel isn't backing down. And I spoke with him just a short time ago.


ZAHN: How disappointed are you that the newly elected Democratic leadership won't touch your draft issue?

RANGEL: I don't blame them. Talking about the draft is a very dangerous thing politically.


ZAHN: What's so dangerous? What's the risk?

RANGEL: The risk is that you're talking about putting kids, American kids, in harm's way that come from affluent voting families. And they don't like that idea.

But I think it's more important that people who keep talking about sending more troops to Iraq, putting military options on the table in Iran and in North Korea, have to understand that other kids, other people's kids, are fighting these wars. And, so, I think it's very important, when our military chief in Iraq says that you may want more troops there; I don't think we need them, but we don't have think anyway.

And I know where these young people are coming from, and I think we have exhausted our National Guard, exhausting our reserve. And we ought to pause, take a deep breath, and see whether we're prepared for everyone, universally, men and women, to share in this sacrifice.

ZAHN: You obviously believe a draft is necessary if we potentially will enter a military conflict in -- in Iran, and maybe even North Korea.

When you say you don't blame the Democratic leadership, don't you wish they had more backbone on this one?

RANGEL: I don't care what the leadership does. The American people voted in the midterm election. They either don't know why we're in Iraq, but they certainly want us to get out of Iraq.

You have never heard the president of the United States make a patriotic appeal for all Americans to volunteer to stop terrorism from coming from Iraq to the United States. And we all know that the people that are enlisting are enlisting because they don't have better options.

If that wasn't so, the military would not be spending $4 billion setting up recruiting stations in the areas of the highest unemployment, offering up to $40,000 to enlist, and, in addition to that, $70,000 in education, and upping the age, since they couldn't get enough recruits, from 26 to 39. So, we know what's going on. Is it difficult to talk about? Is it awkward? Yes. It doesn't take away from the patriotism of those that are fighting. But, if the war is worth fighting, what's the objection for everyone making a sacrifice?

ZAHN: But isn't it disingenuous for you to say that you don't care what the House leadership does, when, in fact, you need them if there's ever going to be a vote on this issue?

RANGEL: I don't -- forget the vote. Before you get to the vote, we have to have the debate; we have to have the hearings; we have to have full discussion. And that's good enough for me. It could very well be, at the end of the day, the wars are over, they don't need all of these people, and so we don't need a draft.

And, then, I would talk about national military service, which is another subject good for another time.

ZAHN: Thank you for setting the record straight here tonight.

Charles Rangel, appreciate it.

RANGEL: Thank you so much, Paula.


ZAHN: My pleasure.

The current chairman of the House Armed Services Committee made a point of going public against Congressman Rangel's draft proposal today.

And, a little bit earlier, I spoke with Republican Duncan Hunter of California, who also happens to be exploring the idea of running for president.


ZAHN: And Representative Duncan Hunter joins us.

Always good to see you, sir. Thanks so much for being with us.


ZAHN: Why are you so opposed to Congressman Rangel's idea to bring back the draft?

HUNTER: Well, first, Paula, I am opposed to the premise upon which he bases this idea.

And I have -- I have heard Charlie. I like him. He was an old 2nd Division man from Korea.

But his argument is to the effect that -- that only people go to war who have to go. And I can tell you that, after 9/11, I came back to San Diego, to my hometown, and I -- and I had a son who was in the high-tech industry, good job, wife and baby, and I saw him running up the mountainside. I said, what are you doing?

He said: I quit my job. I'm joining the Marines. We're going to go get them.

And -- and he did, subsequently, two tours in Iraq as a Marine officer.

Secondly, the voluntary military is working. I just looked at all the statistics. And the combat units, the people that go into combat -- and you would think, if anyone was -- that did -- would not want to reenlist, it would be the guys in combat. They're reenlisting. And we're meeting more than 100 percent of our goals for reenlistments. And we're meeting enlistment goals across the board.

ZAHN: That may be true, but a lot of people think that misses the point. Even General Abizaid, who's in charge of the operations in Iraq, has said, if you brought in 20,000 more troops now, you simply can't sustain that. The -- the Army is too small and has been too weakened.

HUNTER: Well, here's what we have done, Paula.

When the Clintons walked out of the White House, they cut the U.S. Army from what was 18 divisions to 10, cut it almost in half. We have increased the Army now by 30,000 troops. Now, in Iraq, it's true that we need new troops. We need more troops in Baghdad.

And I have got an answer for that. We have got 114 Iraqi battalions that we have trained and equipped that are in Iraq. Twenty-seven of them are in places where there's no fighting to speak of going on. We need to take those Iraqis that we have trained and equipped that -- who have weapons, have communications gear. We need to saddle them up and move them into Baghdad. That will mature them as a fighting force.

That will help them. It will help the Iraqi people. And it speeds up the time when America can leave.

ZAHN: We have heard your chief objections to reinstating the draft. And I know you feel very passionately about this. But how much does politics enter into this? Are you afraid that no one wants to take this issue on because of all the pain that it causes?

HUNTER: No, listen, I'm just an American who saw my dad volunteer in World War II. He had a deferment. He volunteered. I didn't do anything special in Vietnam, but I -- I showed up as a volunteer.

And my son volunteered for this Iraqi -- for this war in Iraq and -- and the war against terror. And I think that is the principal ethic that moves Americans. That's the ethic of patriotism and volunteerism.

It doesn't make sense, Paula -- if you have a volunteer who is willing to take a position and wants to take a position and volunteers or re-ups or enlists in the military, it doesn't make sense to push him out of the way, and put in somebody who didn't volunteer, who would rather be doing something else.

ZAHN: Representative Duncan Hunter, thanks for your time tonight. We really appreciate it.

HUNTER: Hey, thank you.


ZAHN: So, the question is, if we don't bring back the draft, and don't bring the troops home immediately, who will be going to Iraq?

Coming up, we're going to hear from some of the young men and women who are volunteering for the military, even though they know what they're getting into.

Plus: Why did FOX Television dump O.J. Simpson, the television series and the book? Was it noble, or, in the end, was it really about money?


ZAHN: We're turning to our "Top Story" in the war in Iraq, the possibility of restarting the draft.

Now, if that happens, the lives of thousands of people would suddenly change all over the country in communities like Hemet, California.

That's where Thelma Gutierrez reports from tonight.


THELMA GUTIERREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Corporal Kenny Stanton, 20 years old, Corpsman Charles Sare, 23, Specialist Jason Chappell, 22, and 20-year-old Corporal Michael Estrella, the fallen sons of Hemet, California, population 67,000.

(on camera): Here in Hemet, most everyone says they know at least one person who was killed in Iraq. The cost of the war has been deep and personal. And talk of a possible draft is making everyone nervous...

(voice-over): ... like 18-year-old Josh Arroyo (ph), who went to the same high school as three of the fallen soldiers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After I -- if I were to be drafted I would not join up. I would, like I said, submit myself as a conscientious objector.

GUTIERREZ: It's also worrisome to 20-year-old Rick Trent and 18- year-old Julia Beat (ph), who work at a local coffee house here in Hemet. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would refuse to go completely, no matter what the consequences, whether it be jail time, prison. No matter what, I wouldn't -- I would not participate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a scary thought, to think that a lot of people will be forced into -- into going and joining the draft.

GUTIERREZ (on camera): So, what if they say, you're drafted; you're it; you're going?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then, I would have to refuse.

GUTIERREZ (voice-over): But 20-somethings Mary Hancock and Robert Glenn (ph) argue that four soldiers from their town paid with their lives, and no one should be above that kind of sacrifice.

MARY HANCOCK, 21 YEARS OLD: I don't have a problem with serving my country. I have a lot of friends in the military that have served, or are serving. So, I don't have a -- I don't have a problem with it. It's my country. I'm going to serve it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we need to go, then we need to go. Everyone needs to do their own fair share.

GUTIERREZ: Vietnam vet Mike Amay (ph) agrees. He believes the draft will make combat an equal-opportunity risk for the rich and poor alike.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It should even for everybody, no matter who you are. No matter what -- if you're 18, no matter what your race or your financial status or anything like that, you should be available to go.

GUTIERREZ: Residents here say they will closely watch where the draft debate goes. Its outcome may have consequences this town knows all too well.

Thelma Gutierrez, CNN, Hemet, California.


ZAHN: And there is one more thing to add. Two hundred and ninety-seven Californians have died fighting in Iraq. That's more than one-tenth of all U.S. Iraq war deaths.

There's more to come in tonight's "Top Story" in crime, more than you might guess -- coming up, After all of the controversy, after all of the criticism, the real reason why FOX pulled the plug on O.J. Simpson's new book and TV interview.

Later, on to our "Top Story" in politics: Senator Barack Obama's new plan to deal with the Iraq crisis. Does that mean he's getting closer to running for president?

Check it out with us.


ZAHN: Our "Top Story" tonight in crime: All that outrage made a difference. News Corp. has pulled the plug on O.J. Simpson's "I Did It" book and TV special, in which he hypothetically described killing his ex-wife and her friend, Ron Goldman. Why the corporate change of heart?

Well, take a look at this CNN/Opponent Research poll -- these numbers just out. Fifty-five percent say the book is offensive. Thirty percent say it is inappropriate. And let's not forget, at least 11 FOX stations announced they wouldn't even air the special. And there were reports that advertisers didn't want to touch it either.

Ted Rowlands has been covering the controversy. He joins me now with the latest details.

Hi, Ted.


The premise of all of this was that O.J. Simpson was going to describe in detail the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman, as if he were the killer. Two one-hour specials on FOX and a box were promoted. O.J. and News Corp. were presumably going to cash in on the murders, something that was universally not well-received. The public was outraged.

Besides the FOX affiliates that were not going to run the program, a number of employees at FOX even came out against the project. Today, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. released this statement, saying: "I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project. We are sorry for any pain that this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson."

Well, we got a statement late this evening from Kim Goldman. And she said that she was absolutely ecstatic by this, and said that she -- it -- it was not appropriate on the part of FOX, and they should never have entered into a contract with a -- quote -- "murderer."

The publisher claims that O.J. Simpson was paid through a third party for the rights to the book. The money was supposed to go to his children. It is unclear at this point what happens to that money right now. Kim Goldman also tonight, in a statement to CNN, Paula, said: "To Simpson, I say, we are watching every move you make for the rest of your existence. We made a commitment to honor the memories of Ron and Nicole, and we won't waver in our resolve to stand firm in our pursuit of justice" -- very strong words coming from the Goldman family tonight -- Paula.

ZAHN: But, unfortunately, Ted, for both of these families, this book is done. It is written. What are the chances that someone else will pick it up?

ROWLANDS: Well, presumably, O.J. Simpson still owns the rights to it -- or now owns the rights to it again, if the publishers are going to give the rights back to him. So -- and, you know, this book is out. It's written, like you say. Some people have read it. Undoubtedly, as disgusted as most people are by it, there will be an appetite.

Whether or not O.J. tries to peddle this another way remains to be seen, but something that the Goldman family will definitely be watching.

ZAHN: And he's a pretty creative guy, isn't that -- that O.J. Simpson?

ROWLANDS: Yes, I don't -- I don't think this is over yet, especially considering the book is already written.

ZAHN: All right, Ted Rowlands, thanks so much.

Joining me now, "Washington Post" media reporter Howard Kurtz, who also hosts CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES."

Always good to see you, Howie.


ZAHN: All right. So, what's the deal here? Did FOX cave because of public pressure, or because it simply couldn't make money off this project?

KURTZ: Well, the financial aspect was huge, but this was a classic case of the power of the public revulsion.

Everybody hated this odious idea, FOX commentators, FOX affiliates, potential advertisers. I think that Rupert Murdoch had banked on the fact that there would be so much controversy around this, that everybody would want to tune; everybody would want to watch, would want to buy the book.

Instead, what happened is, he got a huge public-relations black eye, and, to his credit, was able to acknowledge this big fat blunder, and pull the plug on this ill-considered project.

ZAHN: So, does this remove the black eye, or does this make people even more cynical about the process?

KURTZ: Oh, it's just damage control.

I mean, Murdoch should have known from the start that to give this kind of platform to somebody who most Americans believe is a double murderer, and to do it under this smarmy, oh, if I did it, here's how I would have done it, and to pay him millions of dollars, even if it's through an intermediary, all of which -- all of that seems like sinking below even the ordinary low standards of network television when sweeps time comes around.

ZAHN: Sure. But the fact is...

KURTZ: And, so, it doesn't... ZAHN: ... they entered into this deal. What were they thinking from day one?

KURTZ: From the first second this was announced, Paula, I could not imagine what they were thinking.

I mean, to -- to think that they were going to pull this off -- I mean, in retrospect, it's amazing that -- that this thing didn't get hooted down sooner.

I mean, there is nobody, nobody, who is defending this, even people on their own FOX News Channel. And, so, I think this criticism is well-deserved. This very rarely happens. I mean, the public gets teed off a lot about some of the trashy stuff that appears on television, but very rarely is there such intensity and unity about how sickening this spectacle would have been that a major network is forced to reverse course.


ZAHN: And to see just how revolted the public was, I want us all to check out these numbers together here tonight, the latest results of a CNN opinion poll.

And they basically showed how, from 1995 to 2004, public opinion about O.J.'s guilt stayed pretty much the same.

But, then, take a look at how that jumps now. Nearly half of those polled think that O.J. killed Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson.

What does that tell you about the media's impact on this story?

KURTZ: Well, for one thing, I'm surprised that the numbers aren't even higher. Secondly...

ZAHN: Well, I am, too, frankly.

KURTZ: Yes. I thought it would be 85 percent.

Secondly, I think, as more time has passed from the emotions that surrounded that racially divisive trial, it has become clear, to some people, that, of course, he did it. He wasn't out looking for the real killers.

And, finally, the mere fact that O.J. was willing to go and talk about how he hypothetically did it, just in exchange for a big payday, I think has probably changed more minds that aren't reflected in that poll, people who maybe were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt at first, and now clearly see that he's even willing to talk about his guilt, as long as it's cloaked in this thin veneer of, well, of course, I'm just kidding around here.

ZAHN: The whole thing is so sick.

But do we know if FOX ended up selling any ad time, and, if they did, how they're going to take care of that? Do they have give the money back?

KURTZ: Well, obviously, they have to give the money back.

They will have -- Amazon will have to give the money back to anybody who pre-purchased this book.

I don't -- I haven't heard of a single advertiser who wanted to have their brand name sullied by association with this project. But I also agree, as you noted earlier in the broadcast, this book is already written. Some bottom-feeder will -- will bring it out. I guess some people will buy it.

But, by and large, the public has spoken here with -- with just an unbelievable revulsion about this project. It's impossible to defend it. There is no other side. And I'm glad that Murdoch belatedly realized that he had made such a terrible mistake.

ZAHN: Well, it will just still be interesting to see, when people say that, in spite of that, how well the book will sell, if it ends up getting published by somebody else.

Howard Kurtz, thanks.

KURTZ: Thank you.

ZAHN: We're going to move on to our "Top Story" in politics tonight. It involves a possible presidential candidate who's getting a lot of excitement out there in the hustings. Coming up, Barack Obama talks about whether the U.S. is ready for an African-American president.

And, then, a little bit later on: a tragedy in Alabama that could happen anywhere. Tonight's "Top Story" in school safety: Is it time to put seat belts and air bags on school buses?


ZAHN: Coming up in this half hour: tonight's top story in school safety. Is it time to put seatbelts and airbags on every schoolbus? Could they have prevented a terrible tragedy like this one in Alabama today?

Tonight's top story in entertainment is no laughing matter. A famous comedian's onstage outburst is generating a lot of outrage. Why did he say what he did?

Then coming up at the top of the hour, "LARRY KING LIVE" has more on the cancellation of O.J. Simpson's book and TV deal.

Now, on to our top story in politics tonight, the presidential hopes of Illinois Senator Barack Obama. The Democrat has said he is thinking about running, but hasn't made his mind up just yet.

Tonight a new CNN Opinion Research poll puts Hillary Clinton at the top of the list among possible Democratic candidates. But Obama is at a statistical tie for second with John Edwards and Al Gore. Obama sounded a lot like a candidate today, though, during a speech in Chicago in which he called for a gradual and substantial reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq starting six months from now.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) ILLINOIS: For only through this phased redeployment can we send a clear message to the Iraqi factions that the United States is not going to hold together this country indefinitely, that it will be up to them to form a viable government that can effectively run and secure Iraq.


ZAHN: My colleague Don Lemon sat down with Senator Obama for an interview in Chicago today. He joins me now.

So, Don, let's talk about his experience, straight off the bat here. Only two years in the Senate. Does anybody think he has enough experience in international issues that he really could be a viable candidate?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Well, obviously he thinks that he has enough experience. Otherwise, he would not be leading us to think that he would possibly run for president. Of course, he hasn't given his answer yet, but every single, as I call them, politico, or political watcher or expert, that I spoke to today said, let's face it, Barack Obama is no dummy. He is, you know, the president of the Harvard Law Review. He was a state senator here in Chicago, where he served and had a good traffic record here. And he's also a constitutional law professor. So he knows the law. He's no dummy. He's a very smart man.

But he understands that experience will play to this whole factor about whether or not he will run for president. Take a look at what he had to say.


OBAMA: The experience that I have as a state senator, as a constitutional law professor and a U.S. senator, I think, gives me a good grasp of the issues that we face as a country.

Whether or not that experience translates into good judgment that would allow me to lead this country, I think is something that that would be tested over time. But I think the important thing is not experience per se. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had the best resumes in Washington and initiated a fiasco in Iraq.


LEMON: And Paula, if you were here in Chicago today and you got to witness what happened, him giving a speech on foreign policy and then taking questions, Q and A afterwards, and giving a press conference and then sitting down for an exclusive interview and dressing the part. It was as if -- as if, I was speaking to the president or attending a White House briefing.

So he certainly knows how to play the game, if you will.

ZAHN: You asked him the question about whether you thought America was ready for an African-American president. What did he say?

LEMON: Well, I talked to him, and over the years that I was in Chicago, and I said to him, do you -- would you imagine, at this point, that we would be talking about a woman for president or a person of color for president? And in this interview, I'd had those conversations with him before when he was running for senator, and talking about, you know, Hillary Rodham Clinton possibly running for president.

So I talked to him about that today, and he did give me an answer about it on camera.


OBAMA: Absolutely. I think the American people, at their core, are a decent people. I think that we still have prejudice in our midst but I think that the vast majority of Americans are willing to judge people on the basis of, you know, their ideas and their character. And in the case of the presidency, I think what is most important is whether the American people think that you understand their hopes and dreams and struggles and whether they think that you can actually help them achieve those hopes and dreams.

LEMON: Why should people vote for you?


LEMON: And Paula, many people today asked me, you know, is this symbolic? Does he really think he has a chance to win here? Does he really believe a person of color, specifically himself, if he decided to run, could win the presidency?

And I would have to say he's in it to win it. And today he was certainly sounding like someone who was going to run for office.

ZAHN: Yes, everything short of announcing it there, Don.


LEMON: Absolutely.

ZAHN: I want you to stay here with me because I'm going to bring in our top story panel to talk more about this.

Niger Innis, a Republican strategist and spokesman for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.

And Mark Green, founder of the New Democracy Project and author of "Losing Our Democracy".

Good to see you, as well. I wanted to start off by checking out a new CNN poll which shows how well Obama would do right off the bat in this head to head to head battle.

I'm sure, Mark, you're not surprised to see him right up there with Hillary Clinton, giving her a bit of a shaking here.

MARK GREEN, AUTHOR, "LOSING OUR DEMOCRACY": You'd have to be surprised. He's essentially tied with two people who ran for president, Al Gore in 2000, successfully, although not technically, and then John Edwards.

It's phenomenal. That is, a two-year senator who is half the polling data of Hillary Clinton. She is a bona fide strong front runner because of her fame, money, record, and adviser. She has the best adviser in the galaxy who she lives with.

That he would be that close, I think tells more about us than him. It's the idea of Obama that is so intriguing to Democrats, who have been out of power and would like someone who's authentically a uniter and not a divider.

ZAHN: I saw you...

LEMON: And don't forget, Mark...

ZAHN: Go ahead, Don.

LEMON: I was going to say, don't forget that Hillary Rodham Clinton already has a machine in place and has had a staff in place for years. So it's expected that, if she does decide to declare a run for the president, she will keep many of those people in place. So she already has a machine.

And for someone like Barack Obama, who does not have that, doesn't even have an exploratory committee in place, yet those numbers are phenomenal.

ZAHN: So, Niger, you talk about the idea of his candidacy. The truth is, a lot of people think he's a vessel, that people assign all kinds of things to. Do we really know what he thinks about a whole range of issues here?

NIGER INNIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: We don't. Most of the American people don't. I just saw a poll recently that said that, in spite of the fact that he's a media superstar and celebrity that's gone to the stratosphere in terms of celebrity, still, one out of three Americans still don't know who he is, far less even know what he stands for on the issues.

But he's in somewhat of a perfect place to be a candidate -- to be a candidate, in that he is this empty vessel, politically, that everybody can throw their dreams and aspirations into that vessel, and reflecting back to them is a Barack Obama that they want to see.

GREEN: In baseball often you have a phenom rookie who goes 6-0 and then in the summer you can see whether he really has what it takes. So Obama has really quickly gone to the semifinals in a strong field. I mean, John Kerry's experienced, John Edwards is experienced, for example, and Hillary Clinton's leadership.

That he's competitive with them is phenomenal. And I think he'll do well or not based on something we can't know in '06. In '08, will this man meet his moment? What's the big idea?

And if the big idea then is, after this extreme ideological zealot called Bush, who's quite faith-based, do Democrats first and then America want a fact-based guy who is more mainstream than extreme and is more like a linear, logical lawyer, who can bring people together rather than just attack countries which haven't attacked us.

If we want somebody who's red and blue and black and white, central casting...

ZAHN: What is his Achilles' heel, Don Lemon?

LEMON: I think -- people would think that his Achilles' heel would be his experience. But many people will say to you that is -- that's probably one of the factors that's going to help him, because he doesn't have a record as a Senate, he doesn't -- as a senator, he doesn't have a long record of votes where people can use against him.

And also his bigger appeal, though, this is what's important about Barack Obama. People say that he has that "it" factor, that same sort of thing that they would describe when they would talk about Bill Clinton, like he walked into a room and you knew who -- you definitely felt his presence.

But Barack Obama, in many ways, he does have that. But, again, he doesn't have the record in the Senate that people can use as a paper trail about what he's done, good or bad.

ZAHN: Niger, final question about you, Don Lemon talking to us about the question he posed, is America ready for an African-American president?

We know though, what's happened in other elections before. Poll after poll shows what they call the Bradley effect. People say yes, we'll vote for a black candidate. And guess what?

When it comes time to pull the lever, they don't.

INNIS: All though, I think...

ZAHN: Is America ready?

INNIS: America absolutely is ready for a black candidate and a black president of the United States. I think the question is, is America ready for a traditional liberal from Illinois representing the entire country?

A lot of people compare Barack to John F. Kennedy, but Kennedy had that big moment when he ran for vice-president in 1956 against Estes Kefauver and launched a credible challenge against Estes Kefauver. He lost it, but he gained a lot of support in all parts and regions of the country, including the South, which, for a Catholic, was amazing, and that was his moment. I'd have to agree with Mark that Barack needs that big moment.

GREEN: America was ready for Colin Powell in '96. France is ready for a woman president. Germany has a woman president. America's ready. We'll see if he's the one though.

LEMON: People are comparing -- Mark and Niger, people are comparing Barack Obama to John F. Kennedy not because of experience, but because of charisma.

INNIS: Absolutely.

ZAHN: All right trio, got to leave it there. Niger Innis, Mark Green, Don Lemon, thanks.

We're going to move on now to tonight's top story in school safety. At least three students were killed when their bus ran off a highway in Alabama today. Coming up, should school buses everywhere have seat belts and air bags?

And a little later top story in entertainment, an actor tries to be a comedian. Oh, man, you're not going to believe this. Wait until you hear what he said when some guys got on his nerves. He's under fire from everyone. Not a very pretty picture.


ZAHN: Our top story in school safety tonight, a horrible school bus crash in Alabama, three high school students were killed today when their bus plunged 30 feet head first off a highway overpass. Right now, dozens of other students who were on that bus are in critical condition. Let's check in with Rusty Dornin, who joins us from Huntsville, Alabama. She joins me with the very latest. What a horrible day there.

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula, still so many unanswered questions as well. And NTSB investigators are back on the scene tonight to try to answer some of those questions. What we do know, 43 students from Lee High School in Huntsville, Alabama. They're going to the technical center, the school nearby. Apparently one witness said during the time the bus was on the overpass, a car swerved towards it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The car may have come close to and or struck the bus causing the bus to strike the rail and ultimately leaving the elevated part of the interstate.


DORNIN: Police now say that that car was driven by another high school student, but it's still very unclear as to whether that car hit the bus or not.

Of course parents were frantic during this whole time trying to find out whether their students, their children were on the bus. Three people were killed. There were many injured, 30 injured, two still in critical condition.

Of course it was also very difficult to I.D. the children. But now safety questions, of course, are coming up as they would in a case like this. And one reporter asked a victim in the hospital, Wanda Jefferson (ph), what she thought about seat belts.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think this would have been different if you'd have had seat belts on?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because you can strap down even though some people don't use seat belts and everybody wouldn't have been injured like they were.


DORNIN: But, of course, it remains unclear whether seat belts would have helped in this case like this. But upcoming, in the story coming up from David Mattingly's piece, you will see some dramatic video from a rollover where students were not wearing seat belts, and of course Paula most buses are not outfitted with seat belts or air bags.

ZAHN: And that's a big surprise to a lot of people out there, Rusty Dornin. And I think what we should probably explain -- thank you, right now, is the fact that the National Transportation Safety Board, whether you realize it or not, says that most school buses are designed to actually protect you, the passengers without seat belts.

But a new study shows a lot more children than previously thought are getting hurt in school bus crashes. Could injuries and even deaths be prevented if kids were forced to buckle up on school buses? David Mattingly has been looking into just that.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Over the years, statistical information shows that taking the bus is the safest way to get to school. But, according to researchers behind a new national study, school buses should be even safer.

GARY SMITH, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR INJURY RESEARCH AND POLICY: Seventeen thousand children are injured each year on school buses. And that number is more than three times higher than previous estimates.

MATTINGLY: The findings, published in the "Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics," shows thousands of strains, sprains, cuts, and bruises are treated at emergency rooms every year after mishaps on buses. Forty-two percent of the injuries happen during crashes.

In this extreme case, from 2003 in Ohio, a bus rollover tossed kids out of their seats. The injuries weren't serious, but, according to researchers, these injuries and many like them could be prevented.

SMITH: Well, it can be a traffic-related swerve, a quick breaking. And, if a child's thrown to the side, there's absolutely nothing to keep them from flying through the air.

MATTINGLY: These crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show how higher seat backs and padding provide good protection in front-end collisions. But adding seat belts and shoulder straps actually caused more injuries to the head, neck and abdomen.

(on camera): But researchers behind the new study argue that seat belts could be effective in preventing injuries in those cases where students are thrown sideways, out of their seats, and into the aisles. They also suggest that better supervision and better behavior on the part of the students themselves could go a long way to cutting down the number of injuries on buses every year.

David Mattingly, CNN, Atlanta.


ZAHN: Scary stuff for those of us who have kids who get on buses every day.

Moving along now to Larry King, he's coming up in just about 11 minutes from now. Hi Larry, who's joining you tonight?

LARRY KING, CNN HOST: Hey Paula, we have a great show tonight. An exclusive with Ron Goldman's father and sister, it's their first interview on the cancellation of the O.J. Simpson book and television show.

And then Alec Baldwin, the go-to guy who plays men's men's characters, so great at comedy, too, plus his off-screen life has made him a real tabloid target. Alec Baldwin and the Goldmans, all straight ahead at the top of the hour, Paula.

ZAHN: Tell Alec I said hello. I've always been a good fan of his and yours, too, Larry, for the record.

KING: Thanks -- you don't have to do that, Paula.

ZAHN: No, I don't. It came from right here. All right, have a good show, we'll be watching.

We're going to take a quick biz break right now. The Dow stumbled today after four days of record highs. The Dow dipped 26 points. The Nasdaq eeked about out a six-point gain, the S&P fell just a fraction of a point. Two money giants announced a merger deal. Top copper miner Phelps Dodge agreeing to be acquired by Freeport McMoran Copper and Gold for $26 billion in cash and stock.

And retailers have their eyes on what's become known as Black Friday. Holiday sales on the day after Thanksgiving traditionally boost big stores into the profit column for the year and out of the red and into the black. Some stores are even opening at midnight on Thanksgiving to drive those numbers.

Tonight's top entertainment story happened at a place called the Laugh Factory, but absolutely no one is laughing about what the guy who played Kramer on "Seinfeld" said onstage and, as it turned out, on camera as well. You're going to see that explosive tape next.


ZAHN: Our top story in entertainment tonight deals with language pretty much everyone finds absolutely offensive. It was part of, or was supposed to be part of, a comedy routine that went terribly wrong at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles on Friday.

Seinfeld sidekick Michael Richards, the guy who played Kramer, lost it onstage and his racist rant was caught on tape.

Entertainment correspondent Brooke Anderson has the verbal fireworks.


BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: There was nothing funny about the angry, racist words comedian Michael Richards, best known as Kramer from "Seinfeld," spewed from the stage of the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles Friday night in reaction to some unruly audience members.

MICHAEL RICHARDS, COMEDIAN: Throw his ass out. He's a nigger. He's a nigger! He's a nigger. He's a nigger.


RICHARDS: A nigger. Look, there's a nigger.

ANDERSON: This cell phone video was obtained by the entertainment website

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was uncalled for.

RICHARDS: It's uncalled for you to interrupt my ass, you cheap motherf***er.

You guys have been talking and talking and talking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was uncalled for, you f***ing cracker- ass motherf***er.

RICHARDS: Cracker-ass? You calling me cracker-ass, nigger?

ANDERSON: The reaction to Richard's rant has been shock and outrage, as evidenced by a protest outside the Laugh Factory and a heated exchange inside during a news conference addressing the incident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take responsibility and don't justify it. It's wrong.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hear you. I hear. Can I say something, please?

ANDERSON: Darryl Pitts was in the audience Friday night when Richards exploded. He says it all began after a group of people were disruptive and told Richards he wasn't funny, and Richards snapped.

RICHARDS: Shut up! Fifty years ago, we would have you upside down with a f***cking fork up your ass!

DARRYL PITTS, AUDIENCE MEMBER: He dropped the mike and just walked off. There was never any, I'm sorry for what you just saw.

ANDERSON: Laugh Factory manager Jamie Masada (ph) and comedian Paul Rodriguez, a club regular who was also on the bill Friday night, said Richards was allowed to come back and perform the next night because he told them he planned to apologize when he took the stage again.

PAUL RODRIGUEZ, COMEDIAN: When he didn't do that, there was -- there was -- well, there was a lot of sadness and anger on my behalf. I wouldn't have him here again.

ANDERSON: Richards refused to speak on camera after his act Saturday, but did tell CNN off camera he was sorry for what happened and had made amends.

To whom and how he made amends, Richards didn't say. But he did appear via satellite Monday on "The Late Show with David Letterman" to apologize.

RICHARDS: And I got heckled, and I took it badly and went into a rage.

I'm very, very sorry to those people in the audience, the blacks, the Hispanics, the whites, everyone that was there that took the brunt of that anger and hate and rage.

ANDERSON: But will it be enough?

A coalition of African-American leaders have condemned Richards and the Laugh Factory has banned him. RODRIGUEZ: He will not be accepted on this stage until the community, the African-American community and its leaders, tell us that he has made proper amends.

ANDERSON: Making it clear that no one's laughing at Michael Richards' latest act.

Brook Anderson, CNN, Hollywood.


ZAHN: And the owner of that club offered to refund customers their money back and free tickets for another night at the Laugh Factory, not that that will make up for what they were exposed to.

We're just minutes away from the top of the hour. "LARRY KING LIVE", tonight Fred Goldman is among the guests reacting to the news that O.J. Simpson has lost his new book and TV deal.

We'll be right back.


ZAHN: Tomorrow, if you're on the move, we have a report for you you need to see before heading to the airport. And for your Thanksgiving Day holiday, consumer reporter Greg Hunter will show us the worst airports for losing luggage. About 30 million pieces lost every year. And what can you do to prevent that from happening?

Join us tomorrow night. We'll tell you.

Again, good of you to drop by tonight.

We'll be back, same time, same place, tomorrow.

Have a great night.


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