updated 1/13/2006 9:06:54 AM ET 2006-01-13T14:06:54

Guests: Gay Talese, Peter Rubie, Lanny Davis, Clint Van Zandt, Adam Ciongoli, Ron Klain, Ron Stallworth

DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Coming up, best-selling author James Frey fights back and gets public support from Oprah. 

The author of Oprah‘s Book Club selection, “A Million Little Pieces,” under fire for making up details about his life for his book.  He insists he did nothing wrong.  Oprah announced she supports him, but other non-fiction authors are furious, and best-selling author Gay Talese joins us to weigh in on it. 

And Royal Caribbean said these exclusive photos don‘t prove they did anything wrong in the hours after newlywed George Smith disappeared from a ship.  So why are the photos causing such an uproar? 

Plus, an undercover cop does such a good job infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, they even tried to make him a KKK leader.  There‘s one major problem:  his race. 

The program about justice starts now. 

Hi, everyone.  First up on the docket, it‘s a case of he said but maybe didn‘t quite do.  James Frey, in his best-selling book, “A Million Little Pieces,” on the hot seat over allegations that he exaggerated, embellished and maybe even just made up parts of his life story. 

The Web site, “The Smoking Gun,” owned by Court TV, exposed Frey after launching their own investigation into his past.  They found police records didn‘t exactly reflect the criminal past Frey wrote about in his memoir, a graphic description of his time in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. 

Well, last night, Frey faced the criticism.  NBC‘s Lester Holt has the story. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMES FREY, AUTHOR, “A MILLION LITTLE PIECES”:  This is my recollection of my life.  You know, a lot of the events I was writing about took place between 15 and 25 years ago.  A lot of the events took place while I was under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  You know, I still stand by my book. 

LESTER HOLT, MSNBC ANCHOR (voice-over):  Embattled author James Frey didn‘t exactly come out swinging in his first public defense of “A Million Little Pieces.”

FREY:  I don‘t think it‘s necessarily appropriate to say I‘ve conned anyone. 

HOLT:  Speaking to Larry King, Frey went out of his way to call his gritty best-seller a “memoir,” neither fact nor fiction. 

FREY:  It‘s a memoir, and it‘s an imperfect animal.  A memoir, the word literally means “my story.”  A memoir is a subjective retelling of events.  

HOLT:  Frey now claims he‘s always admitted that he embellished some things in his book. 

FREY:  I‘ve acknowledged that there were embellishments in the book, you know, that I‘ve changed things, that in certain cases things were toned up, in certain cases thing were toned down. 

HOLT:  But back in 2003, speaking with Matt here on “Today,” Frey insisted everything in the book was accurate. 

MATT LAUER, “TODAY” SHOW HOST:  But did you take any poetic license with some of the stories of what happened to you in that clinic? 

FREY:  No.  I cut out all the boring stuff, but I didn‘t invent anything.  Everything I wrote about happened. 

HOLT:  Frey‘s book made Oprah Winfrey‘s Book Club last year, leading to a 15-week run atop the “New York Times” best-seller list, outselling every other book in 2005 except “Harry Potter.”  Frey‘s publisher, Random House, is standing behind its author, releasing a statement that reads, in part, “Recent accusations against him not withstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers,” a point Winfrey echoed when she called in Wednesday night for her first comments on the controversy. 

OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST:  ... that although some of the facts have been questioned, the underlying message of redemption in James Frey‘s memoir still resonates with me.  And I know that it resonates with millions of other people. 

HOLT:  As for Frey, he says the latest experience has changed his writing forever. 

FREY:  No, I‘ll absolutely never write about myself again. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ABRAMS:  That was Lester Holt reporting.

My take?  “Reading experience,” “underlying message”?  I‘m stunned that Oprah is supporting him and effectively blaming the industry.  He may have lied.  There‘s only so much that the industry, the publishers, the editors can do when it comes to a personal story.  This is just going to makes readers have a lot less faith in nonfiction books. 

It‘s the same thing that applies to us.  I would think that that would bother Oprah and many others. 

Joining me now, renowned author and former “New York Times” writer Gay Talese.  He‘s written dozens of nonfiction books, including “The Kingdom and the Power” and “Honor Thy Father.”  His memoir, “A Writer‘s Life,” comes out in April.  And literary agent Peter Rubie, who‘s also the author of “Telling the Story:  How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction.”

Gentlemen, thanks for coming on the program.  Appreciate it.

Gay, this really bothers me, the notion that he is suggesting, “Oh, you know, when it comes to a memoir, you‘re allowed to get about 5 percent of it wrong.”  And then Oprah‘s saying, “Yes, you know, it‘s really the underlying message.”

GAY TALESE, NONFICTION AUTHOR:  Well, I am an old-fashioned reporter.  And I was reared in the tradition of getting it right, getting 100 percent right, which isn‘t to say that we always did.  But it is the effort to try to define nonfiction and even memoir, as Mr. Frey refers to it, even memoir as being verifiably as truly recounted as you can do it. 

And I know that today there are some fiction writers who use nonfiction situations and nonfiction writers who use somewhat fictional situations.  And my “New York Times” is hardly been flawless, as we know, from the Jayson Blair and others, and Judy Miller‘s difficulties.  So it‘s not that I come from a distinctive institution that doesn‘t make mistakes.

ABRAMS:  Yes.

TALESE:  But I am one of those doctrinaire and rather august nonfiction believers in trying to be verifiably true.  And the irony is—and it brings me no particular pleasure—my wife was the one who published this book that you referred to, James Frey‘s book. 

ABRAMS:  I was just going to ask about you that.  Let me read you a quote from your wife, Nan Talese.  She says, “Nonfiction is not a single, monolithic category, as defined by the best-seller list.  Memoir is personal recollection.  It‘s not absolute fact.  It‘s how one remembers what happened. That is different from history and criticism and biography.  And they cannot be measured by the same yardstick.”

OK, maybe, but he seems to be going further than just saying, “Well, you know, I remember.”  I mean, he seems to be conceding that parts of this just simply aren‘t true. 

TALESE:  I don‘t even agree with my wife, forget James Frey.  I do believe that you can be defining your life in a way that does not encourage the criticism of those who check up on you.  I do believe that factual reporting should be verifiable.  It should be easily traceable. 

I do not believe that his book, or anybody‘s book who writes nonfiction, memoir even, could be less interesting because I do think that reality is fantastic.  I do believe that, if you told the truth, the closest that you can get to your own particular personal truth, it would be remarkable, if you‘re a good writer.  And he‘s a good writer.  I must say this.

ABRAMS:  Yes.

TALESE:  He‘s a very good writer.  And I don‘t think he would have lost anything if he got the facts right, even if, as he put it, it was 5 percent, or 10 percent, or 14 pages, et cetera. 

ABRAMS:  But Peter Rubie, here‘s what disturbs me.  And I want you to listen to another piece of sound of him on CNN‘s “Larry King” talking about this.  I mean, he seems to be basically saying, “Come on.  What‘s the big deal?”  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)  

FREY:  The book is 432 pages long.  The total page count of disputed events is 18, which is less than 5 percent of the total book.  You know, that falls comfortably within the realm of what‘s appropriate for a memoir.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Really, Peter Rubie?  I mean, then I‘ve been misled all these years, because I‘ve always thought—look, I‘m not saying, “Oh, you got this little item wrong, and therefore are you to be vilified.”  That‘s not what we‘re talking about.  He‘s saying, “Oh, you know what?  Maybe 5 percent of my book was wrong.  No big deal.”  That bothers me. 

PETER RUBIE, PETER RUBIE LITERARY AGENCY:  Well, I could understand that.  I mean, I think there‘s a distinction between a memoir, which has been made, which is, you know, recollections, and nonfiction reporting.  I mean, there‘s a difference between a memoir, which is essentially an emotional journey, an emotional adventure, and, you know, a piece of factual narrative nonfiction. 

I would agree.  I mean, I think, you know, writers are responsible and should be responsible for what they write.  I think the problem with memoir, particularly as it‘s developed as a genre, is that it‘s been pushed more and more to extremes. 

So that, whether or not pressures have been applied, you know, I certainly wouldn‘t say.  But I would say that writers instinctively feel they have to sort of best the last one that came out.  And so, you know, suddenly you‘re trying to beat “Running with Scissors” or you‘re trying to beat, you know, another very, sort of outrageous story. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  But that may be the explanation for what led him to this point, but that doesn‘t answer the question of whether it‘s OK now in retrospect. 

RUBIE:  Well, I wouldn‘t—I mean, I don‘t think anybody in publishing would say that it‘s OK to consciously try and deceive people.  I think the question that has to be answered is whether this was, you know, the addled recollections of somebody who admittedly spent most of that time completely in a fog, in a haze, or whether, you know, having come out of it and got himself straight, he decided to go for the most egregious elements in order to, you know, get a best-seller.  And then he lucked out by having Oprah suddenly, you know... 

(CROSSTALK)

ABRAMS:  Yes, I‘m stunned.  I mean, look, you know, I was on Oprah‘s show once, but I certainly don‘t know her personally, Gay Talese.  But I am surprised that there is—well, let me ask it to you this way.  Is there outrage amongst other nonfiction authors that you know? 

TALESE:  I think there is an inner discipline that the better writers of nonfiction have and share, which is to be totally candid and to try, within the best of your efforts, to interview yourself and to probe your own life, if you‘re doing memoir, in a way that is as close to the truth as if you were writing a biography of Oprah Winfrey. 

I mean, I‘m sure Oprah would be appalled if someone on her show lied, not that I‘m saying James Frey did.  Now, I want to be careful here.  But I mean, I do believe that the public has standards that we writers should more than match.  And I know that there are writers and many fine writers that I know who would try even writing about their private life to do so in a way that would not be exaggerated, either to make themselves worse or better than they are. 

ABRAMS:  And I‘ve heard some suggest, “Oh, you know, it‘s the publishing industry‘s responsibility to determine if it‘s nonfiction or fiction.”  That is the most absurd explanation I‘ve ever heard. 

RUBIE:  I do agree with that, yes. 

TALESE:  It isn‘t the publishing.  I know, from my wife‘s vantage point—we met 47 years—that, when a writer submits to her a work of fiction or work of nonfiction, this was presented as a work of memoir.

ABRAMS:  Yes.

TALESE:  It wasn‘t presented as a novel. 

ABRAMS:  Right.

TALESE:  And she published it fully believing in her writer, and she stands up—she stands, as does Oprah, behind this book, my wife, Nan.  It‘s just that I see like more sour on the subject than anyone in my household, at least. 

ABRAMS:  Yes, well, I‘m sour on this, too.

TALESE:  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  Forty-seven years?  That‘s good. 

TALESE:  That‘s a record.  For writers, it‘s a record. 

ABRAMS:  Congratulations.

TALESE:  Thank you. 

ABRAMS:  Gay Talese, great to have you on the program. 

TALESE:  Thank you, Mr. Abrams.

ABRAMS:  Peter Rubie, thank you.  Appreciate it.

RUBIE:  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  Coming up, a huge debate over exclusive pictures of that Royal Caribbean cabin taken after newlywed George Smith disappeared from the cruise ship.  Why are these photos enraging everyone from lawyers to the FBI? 

And Judge Alito weighs in on the Terri Schiavo case, as Democrats try to trip up the Supreme Court nominee one last time. 

Plus, an undercover cop does such a good job going undercover to infiltrate the KKK, they tried to make him a KKK leader.  But when you see what he looks like, without a hood, that is, you won‘t believe they ever made him that offer.  He joins us later. 

Your e-mails, Abramsreport@Msnbc.com.  Please include your name, where you‘re writing from.  I‘ll respond at the end of the show.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JENNIFER HAGEL SMITH, HUSBAND DISAPPEARED ON HONEYMOON CRUISE:  A lot of the crime scene was not protected.  And he is unfortunately dealing with a crime scene that‘s, you know—it‘s not what it should be. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  This is a big controversy.  Exclusive photos obtained by MSNBC‘s Rita Cosby LIVE & DIRECT of what some are calling a crime scene on a cruise ship.  It‘s causing an uproar. 

Now, that was George Smith‘s wife.  He disappeared from a honeymoon cruise back in July.  At issue now:  What happened?  Was it foul play, as his family believes, or more likely an accident, as the captain of the ship believes? 

The case is being investigated by the FBI.  Just this week, pictures, both before and after, have been obtained by Rita.  Now, a lot has been made of the pictures.  Their significance really hasn‘t been entirely clear yet.  We‘re going to try to explain all of it to you and explain what the controversy is. 

Joining me now, the man who certainly has the answers for Royal Caribbean, their attorney, Lanny Davis. 

All right.  Lanny, good to see you. 

LANNY DAVIS, ATTORNEY FOR ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISE LINES:  Hey, Dan.

ABRAMS:  Let‘s go through these.  Let‘s start with the first picture here and then I want to compare it to the second picture.  All right.  That‘s the first picture.  That‘s the cabin. 

DAVIS:  Right.

ABRAMS:  Now, let‘s show the second picture again here.  OK.  It looks very different.  It looks like things are strewn about, thrown around the room, et cetera.  And, as you know, the claim has been—and the captain said to me—that he believed that the room had been sealed.  What happened? 

DAVIS:  First of all, the captain made that judgment at the time.  I don‘t think anybody knows whether it‘s an accident or not.  And we probably would have preferred the captain not speculating.

But here‘s what simply happened.  On July 5th at 9:30 in the morning, about an hour after the blood was found on the canopy and after the Turkish authorities had been notified and were on their way to do their forensic examination, we took photographs of the status quo before the Turkish authorities arrived, after they arrived, and two days later, which also had an intervening event, which is Marie coming onboard and cleaning up the clothes and putting them into a suitcase, and an FBI agent coming onboard. 

We then took another set of photographs to see the difference between the room before the investigators came and after. 

ABRAMS:  But, wait, why was...

DAVIS:  And that is why the photographs are different.

ABRAMS:  Let me ask you this, because I‘ve got to follow-up on that.  Why were pictures taken before, if at the time the captain was thinking this is just an accident? 

DAVIS:  Well, first of all, the captain said the word probable, not definite.  Secondly, as a matter of a public record, we wanted a record of what the room looked like before the forensic investigators arrived, because, remember, the Turkish authorities did forensic investigation, meaning they took the evidence, where there was some blood.  They took other evidence.  They secured whatever they could and turned it over to the FBI.

Then the FBI agent came onboard two days later and did an observation of the room, and walked through the room.  Then we took the photographs afterwards. 

And we also have—and you know that Marie Breheret, our guest relations manager, at Jennifer‘s request, got the combination to the safe, went onboard the ship after the investigation was over, after the room was cleared by Turkish police, and packed up her clothes so that she could return home. 

That‘s the absolute innocent explanation for the difference in the photographs.  And I‘m surprised anybody‘s making anything of it, because they‘re not only irrelevant, since the investigation, the forensic evidence was already gathered, but there‘s obviously a difference between a before-and-after shot, when the investigators had been in the room and when Jennifer had packed up the clothes. 

ABRAMS:  I accept that.  I agree with you that this doesn‘t seem to be that big a deal, considering what may have happened in the interim.  But here‘s what the captain had to say.  And then I want to ask you a question on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

ABRAMS:  The room was closed for many days? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, after...

ABRAMS:  It was sealed off for many days? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Until we go back to Barcelona, until the 11th

ABRAMS:  So that‘s, what, six days? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, six days. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  So, Lanny, this is the captain who, at the time, believed that it was likely an accident.  He said that to us.  He wrote it in a report.  And you‘re saying, look, he hadn‘t drawn a formal conclusion, fine.  But that was his speculation. 

He speculated at the time it was likely an accident.  He was moving forward, he told me, on the assumption that it was an accident.  So why—

I still don‘t get why pictures are being taken before the Turkish authorities go into the room.  Were they afraid the Turkish authorities might rip stuff off? 

DAVIS:  No.  By the way, he wasn‘t going forward anything.  We‘re not an investigative agency.  We called in the police.  We took photographs of what the room looked like before the police went through the room.  And we, I think as a matter of good company policy, would want to see that evidence and that record made before the investigators changed things around in the room.  But there was no ulterior motive there.

ABRAMS:  But it sounds like—but that makes it sound like you‘re treating it like a crime scene.  And that does seem a bit inconsistent with the way that the captain viewed what everything that had happened at that time. 

DAVIS:  The captain said “probably,” because there was excessive alcohol.  We knew that Mr. Smith had been taken back to the room extremely inebriated.  And the law of statistics are that virtually every overboard has been either accidental or suicide. 

Should the captain have speculated to the great Dan Abrams? 

Absolutely not.  And his accident report was only two days after the event.  And he put the word “probably” in.  But it had no impact whatsoever on the integrity of the investigation.  The FBI would tell you that.  The Turkish authorities would tell you that.  And that‘s the answer, Dan.

ABRAMS:  So why are you so upset about these pictures?  Do you care about these pictures being released? 

DAVIS:  No.

ABRAMS:  I would think you would say, “What‘s the big deal?”

DAVIS:  Well, the FBI asked us not to release the pictures because, if they‘re investigating the young men who were with Mr. Smith, there may be items in those photographs that might tip off a defense attorney about what might or might not be awry.  FBI investigators don‘t like evidence released to defendants or to people they‘re investigating. 

ABRAMS:  Yes, I‘m going to ask...

(CROSSTALK)

DAVIS:  But, look, from my standpoint, I have no criticism of NBC.  It was good journalism. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  I‘m going to ask Clint Van Zandt about that in a minute.  Let me just really quickly play you George Smith‘s sister, who was very angry at you.  And I want to give you an opportunity to respond. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BREE SMITH, SISTER OF MISSING GROOM:  My brother was a victim on your cruise ship on the evening of July 5th, on—I‘m sorry, the overnight period, resulting in the morning of July 5th.  He was a victim then.  And your latest approach at attacking my family is victimizing him again.  And I don‘t know how any of you sleep at night. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  What‘s your response to that? 

DAVIS:  I feel very badly for her.  We‘re not attacking her or her family.  She‘s misunderstanding what we‘re saying.  My heart goes out to a grieving sister and a grieving family.  Certainly, we‘re not criticizing here.  But she‘s not allowed to make a false statements because she‘s grieving.  And the false statement is that we covered up or that there‘s definite evidence of murder, where...

ABRAMS:  But you can confirm, can‘t you, Lanny, that there was blood, in fact, found on the sheets under the bedspread in the room? 

DAVIS:  Because it‘s out there, Dan, I‘m not going to deny that there was a smidgen of blood found under the bedspread.  Whether it was George Smith‘s blood, or whether it was Mrs. Smith‘s blood, or whether it was the blood of some of the young men, nobody knows but the FBI, because they can do the DNA match.  I do know that the Turkish authorities took that forensic evidence, those samples.  The blood from the canopy was preserved and handed over to the FBI.  The FBI complimented the Turkish authorities... 

ABRAMS:  But how would the blood have gotten there?  But how would the blood have gotten there, if, when they returned her—remember, she‘s, of course, found passed out in a corridor.  She‘s brought back to the room around 4:30 in the morning.  And we‘re told that the comforter appeared to be covering the bed or the bed appeared to be made.  How would George Smith‘s blood have gotten under the sheets and then the bed have become made again before she was brought back to the room? 

DAVIS:  I‘ll tell you what.  I‘ll give you the facts, and you‘re the great lawyer.  You do the speculation. 

Here are the facts.  We don‘t know whose blood was on that sheet.  He don‘t know whose blood was in the bathroom on towels and tissues.  We do know that blood was found. 

Secondly, we know, at 5:00 in the morning, not particularly conscious, Mrs. Smith is rolled back on a wheelchair, found on the other side of the ship on the carpet, and put on top of the bedspread.  So there would have been no visible blood on the sheet.

And thirdly, what we know is that, at 8:00 in the morning, Mrs. Smith got up, put on makeup, and then went up to have a spa appointment.  And she didn‘t notice anything untoward or she would have reported it. 

Now, you put those facts together and tell me what you can conclude.  Right now, I‘m not speculate.  I‘m going to let the FBI to do the DNA match...

ABRAMS:  All right.

DAVIS:  ... to try to figure this out. 

ABRAMS:  Lanny Davis, good to see you.  Thanks for taking the time, Lanny. 

DAVIS:  Thanks, Dan. 

ABRAMS:  All right.

Joining us me now, our favorite FBI speculator, profiler, MSNBC analyst Clint Van Zandt. 

All right, Clint.  Speculate. 

CLINT VAN ZANDT, FORMER FBI PROFILER:  Sure.  I will right now. 

Number one, we know the statement by some of these young men who were in that cabin that night—at least one statement that I know of said they brought George Smith back, that two or three of them put him to bed while one of the other boys stayed inside the bathroom. 

So if, in fact, the statement is put him into bed, that suggests perhaps in between the sheets, which may account for how that blood got there, speculation only, OK?

I‘ll take it a step further than Lanny did.  I‘ll give you that speculation. 

But right now, Dan, you know, we‘ve got this tremendous amount of noise from the cruise line defending itself.  We‘ve got this tremendous amount of noise from the family indicting the cruise line.  The FBI has to stay focused only on the evidence, only what they can prove. 

And they said, she said, all these other personal assaults and indictments, none of that counts until the FBI, and the grand jury, and the federal prosecutor come forward...

ABRAMS:  All right, but, Clint, explain this...

VAN ZANDT:  ... and say homicide, suicide or accident.  And we haven‘t heard that yet. 

ABRAMS:  Explain this to me, Clint.  The FBI was asking MSNBC not to air these photos. 

VAN ZANDT:  Yes.

ABRAMS:  This is—and I can understand that. 

VAN ZANDT:  Sure.

ABRAMS:  If this was a month into the investigation, or three weeks, or whatever, they would say, “You know, there could be a lot of possible suspects out there.” 

VAN ZANDT:  Absolutely. 

ABRAMS:  Are you going to tell me that now, seven months later, that there‘s going to be some new information that someone‘s going to learn?  I mean, they know who was on that ship. 

VAN ZANDT:  Hey, Dan...

ABRAMS:  It‘s not as if there are people out there who might have surreptitiously gotten on the ship.  They questioned these people, right?  I mean, this is really going to blow the case for the FBI? 

VAN ZANDT:  And the answer is no.  I don‘t think it is.  The reality, Dan, is that, if the FBI could put a cone of silence over every case...

ABRAMS:  They‘d shut you up. 

VAN ZANDT:  Huh?

ABRAMS:  They‘d shut you up.

VAN ZANDT:  They‘d shut me up.  They‘d shut you up.  They‘d have nobody talking about this case whatsoever.  I‘m sure they‘re sitting there with their arms crossed and saying, “Why are people talking about our case?”

ABRAMS:  And I‘ll tell you what, because I think that, without it sometimes—I don‘t mean to sound—the media sound self-important—but sometimes it gets the authorities going.  It forces investigation.  I mean, some people would argue that, without media pressure in this case, without the pressure of the family in this case, there might not have been any United States investigation, right? 

VAN ZANDT:  Well, no.  I would suggest that the FBI was in this for a penny and a pound both and that they had a full-blown investigation going all the way down the line.  But right now, the dogfight between the family and the cruise line doesn‘t help the FBI get any closer to the truth. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Clint Van Zandt, thanks a lot.  Appreciate it. 

VAN ZANDT:  Thank you, Dan.

VAN ZANDT:  Coming up, Judge Samuel Alito breathes a sigh of relief. 

More than 18 hours in the hot seat, no more questions from the senators. 

And you won‘t believe how far one undercover cop went to infiltrate the KKK.  He went beyond skin deep, so to speak.  He joins us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Coming up, they tried with abortion, presidential power, the Terri Schiavo case.  Did the Democrats find anything that could keep Samuel Alito off the Supreme Court? 

First, the headlines. 

(NEWSBREAK)

ABRAMS:  Judge Samuel Alito seems a big step closer to becoming Supreme Court Justice Alito, as he wrapped up a fourth day of testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Senate Democrats tried for the final time to pin Alito down on issues like presidential power and whether innocence can constitutionally spare a convicted killer from the death chamber. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN:  Let‘s say that the trial was procedurally perfect and there were no legal or constitutional errors, but later evidence proves that the person convicted was unquestionably innocent.  Does that person have a constitutional right not to be executed? 

JUDGE SAMUEL ALITO, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE:  The person has—would first have to avail himself or herself of the procedures that Congress has specified for challenging convictions after they‘d become final.  It is a fundamental right of our criminal—a fundamental right and a fundamental objective of our judicial system that nobody is to be convicted without proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  Do you think the president has the authority to invade Iran tomorrow without getting permission from the people, from the United States Congress, absent him being able to show there is an immediate threat to our national security? 

ALITO:  The whole issue of the extent of the president‘s authority to authorize the use of—to authorize the use of military force without congressional approval has been the subject of a lot of debate.  I would have to study the question. 

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  But what imaginable argument could there be for a statute that Congress could not—that Congress could deny the citizenship to those born in the United States, say, on the grounds that their parents were illegal aliens? 

ALITO:  I don‘t want to say anything that—what, no—could I answer the question, Senator?  I don‘t want to say anything that anybody will characterize as an argument that I am making on one side of this question or on the other side of the question. 

SCHUMER:  While the process is not yet over, we have written questions.  We have some witnesses.  The evidence before us makes it very hard to vote yes on your nomination. 

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS ®, ALABAMA:  You‘ve been most forthcoming.  I‘d disagree with the recent comment that you haven‘t been forthcoming.  I would say, and I think Senator Biden indicated, that we have not had a witness more forthcoming, more willing to discuss the issues than you have. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  All right.  Adam Ciongoli clerked for Judge Alito and worked on judicial nominations as counsel for Attorney General John Ashcroft.  He‘s also a friend of Judge Alito‘s.  Ron Klain worked on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg‘s confirmation hearing when he was associate counsel to President Clinton. 

Good to see you both.

All right, Ron, is nothing sticking for the Democrats? 

RON KLAIN, FORMER CLINTON ASSOCIATE COUNSEL:  Well, I don‘t know about sticking.  I mean, I think, clearly, you have a Senate that‘s got more Republicans than Democrats.  It looks like almost all the Republicans will vote for Judge Alito.  Almost all the Democrats will vote against Judge Alito.  And, you know, you can do the math on that. 

I mean, Judge Alito came through the hearings, I think, as a distinguished and articulate but very conservative judge.  People who want to see the Supreme Court move in that direction will vote for him.  People who want to see the Supreme Court not move in that direction will vote against him. 

ABRAMS:  But do you think that all of the Democrats are going to vote against him?  I mean, he has come across, as you point out, as a thoughtful legal scholar, albeit a conservative.  Is that in and of itself, do you think, going to lead all the Democrats to vote against him? 

KLAIN:  Well, I mean, I don‘t know about every single one.  I don‘t know if all the Republicans will vote for him, Dan.  I do think that Judge Alito, though thoughtful and articulate, is clearly quite conservative.  And I think that, given that he is replacing the swing vote on the Supreme Court, Justice O‘Connor, who in the 200 5-4 cases in the past decade has been the deciding vote in 80 percent of them, given how big a difference this will make on the Supreme Court, I think that a lot of the Democrats—most, maybe all—will say this isn‘t the direction we want to see the court to move in and will vote against him for that reason. 

ABRAMS:  Adam, apart from what you hope will happen and what you are thinking should happen...

ADAM CIONGOLI, CLERKED FOR JUDGE ALITO:  Sure.

ABRAMS:  ... as a practical matter, do you, as someone who‘s an insider in Washington, do you expect that the Democrats are all in a bloc going to vote against him now?

CIONGOLI:  I think Ron and I basically agree on this.  I think that it‘s going to largely be a party-line vote.  I don‘t think it will be entirely a party-line vote. 

I do think that there are some Democrats who, if they‘ve watched the last several days, have seen Judge Alito as a very thoughtful, very dignified, very accomplished man.  The testimony of the judges from the Third Circuit today I think may also influence that.  They really talk about a colleague who‘s extraordinary. 

ABRAMS:  Ron, did anything you saw in the hearings change your mind from before the hearings?  I mean, you knew about his rulings before the hearings.  You knew his positions on most of these issues.  Did anything change one way or the other, based on what you saw? 

KLAIN:  You know, I don‘t think so.  And I don‘t mean that as a criticism of Judge Alito.  I‘m just the sort of person who looks at these things and really thinks that these nominees, be they Democrat or Republican, really should be more judged on a lifetime record, on—in Judge Alito‘s case, you know, a decade-plus of Court of Appeals opinions, all of the written materials that are out there. 

I think that, you know, trying to look for little tea leaves, or head bobs, or slight hints, or indications of what he‘ll do as a Supreme Court justice in the hearings can be very frustrating.  And in this case, it‘s pretty unnecessary. 

Judge Alito had a very long, very substantial, very extensive record as a lawyer and a judge.  And I think that is a substantial basis for these senators to make a decision. 

ABRAMS:  Were the Democrats soft on him, do you think, Ron?  And possibly do you think that they were softer on him today as a result of Judge Alito‘s wife leaving that room in tears yesterday? 

KLAIN:  You know, I don‘t think they were too hard—I mean, I don‘t think they were too hard.  I don‘t think they were too soft.  I think this was just about right. 

Judge Alito took 18 hours of questions.  And some were more pointed and some were less pointed.  But I think overall the basic approach here taken by the senators in both parties was to try to deduce a little bit information, try to tease out the meaning of some of these things, try to learn a little bit more about his background.  And I think that—you know, I think a pretty fair and even-handed tone prevailed throughout the hearings. 

ABRAMS:  Adam, here‘s what Joe Biden said about these hearings.  I want to know if you agree. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN:  I‘ve reached a conclusion, after all these years, that we probably shouldn‘t even have these hearings.  We should just go to the floor of the United States Senate, debate the relative merits of the positions of the nominee, and vote. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  What do you think about that? 

CIONGOLI:  I think the one thing that it leaves out is that, if the senators only vote on the record, they‘re unfortunately going to be voting, in part, based on the talking points that are provided by these outside groups.  And so you have to give the nominee an opportunity to give their version of the cases. 

I think that that has been very helpful to Judge Alito over the last three days, because he has shown an unbelievable recollection of the cases that he‘s decided, the basis on which he‘s decided them, without any notes whatsoever.  And I think that, in the event that you do have some Democrats who are going to vote for him, in part, it‘s going to be because of that performance. 

ABRAMS:  But doesn‘t it become a little bit of a drool test?  I mean, they get up there, right.  And we know they‘re smart.  I mean, we know, based on his record, based on what he‘s written, he‘s got to be very smart.  And so then the question becomes, is he going to be drooling? 

CIONGOLI:  Well, I think what that calls for more is not a three-day hearing.  I mean, Judge Alito answered over 100 questions on abortion.  He answered over 100 questions on executive power.  He answered over 50 questions on Vanguard, over 50 questions on the Concerned Alumni for Princeton. 

You don‘t need to answer the same questions over, and over, and over again to try to see if someone‘s going to slip up.  If we had a day of hearings and we really focused on cases, that, I think, would be valuable. 

ABRAMS:  We shall see.  It was a little long and certainly a little redundant.  I think that‘s true. 

Adam Ciongoli, thanks a lot for all your help during these proceedings. 

CIONGOLI:  Thank you.

ABRAMS:  Ron Klain, good to see you again.  Thanks for coming back.

KLAIN:  Thanks for having me, Dan. 

ABRAMS:  Coming up, he was offered to become a leader of the KKK. 

Wait a minute.  He‘s black.  He joins us, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We talk about undercover police work from time to time on this program, but this is a truly remarkable story.  In the late 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan was expanding in Colorado.  Ron Stallworth was an undercover cop who tried to infiltrate the group.  He disguised himself as a bigot, signed up with a local KKK chapter. 

He began by answering a newspaper ad by phone and used what he said were all the buzzwords the Klansmen liked to hear.  They liked Ron, asked him to join.  Time went by.  He became intimately involved with the group.  He even exchanged numerous phone calls with Klan leader David Duke, who would often mock or insult minorities on the phone with Ron. 

Ron was considered one of the KKK‘s most loyal members.  So one day, the group even asked him to be the leader of their local chapter in Colorado Springs.  But there was one huge hurdle Ron had to overcome during his work. 

Joining me now to talk about it is former police officer and card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, Ron Stallworth. 

Ron, you are black. 

RON STALLWORTH, WENT UNDERCOVER WITH THE KKK:  Last time I checked, I was. 

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS:  And how did that play into your undercover work? 

STALLWORTH:  Well, obviously, it was an obstacle.  When this whole investigation started, I honestly didn‘t think it was going to go very far. 

I didn‘t—I answered this ad in the classifieds.  It said, “Ku Klux Klan: 

For information, call.”  And then there was a phone number. 

And since I was in intelligence and investigator for the Colorado Springs Police Department, I called the number and didn‘t think it was going to lead anywhere.  And lo and behold, another guy answered the phone and told me that he was starting a chapter in Colorado Springs and wanted to know if I was interested.  And I said, “Yes.”  I then spoke with him about why I wanted to join. 

ABRAMS:  What did you say?  What would you say to him? 

STALLWORTH:  I told him I was a pure Aryan, white man, which in and of itself is a joke.  But I said I was a pure Aryan, white-blooded American male, that I had been the victim of racial prejudice because of the dominance of blacks, Jews, and Mexicans, and other minorities, except I used the racial terms that they liked to use referring to those groups. 

ABRAMS:  Right.

STALLWORTH:  And I even went so far as to tell them that part of the reason why I wanted to join was I had found out that a sister of mine had dated a black guy.  And that, to me, was just the ultimate offense.  And he couldn‘t believe that. 

And so he said I was just the type of individual that they were looking for.  They were interested in expanding and asked me if I wanted to join.  And I said, “Sure,” gave him my real name, and made arrangements to meet with him. 

It turned out he was a soldier in the Army, stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado.  And I arranged to meet with him.  I gave him a physical description of myself, obviously didn‘t tell him I was black, and told him I would be arriving at a certain type of vehicle and go from there. 

ABRAMS:  And then you ended up sending—we were just showing your card, your official card in your document there—you actually sent a white officer in your place to a meeting? 

STALLWORTH:  Yes.  I gave my physical description, because I knew a good buddy of mine working the narcotics division for the department matched my physical description.  And what I did was I gave this officer all of my identification, minus anything with a picture, credit card, library card, this type of thing, and told him of my conversation on the phone, told him what I wanted to accomplish with a face-to-face meeting, and wired him for sound and sent him to the location. 

He met with the guy.  The guy gave him some literature, KKK literature, gave him an application form, told him they were part of the Denver chapter.  Denver had a chapter at that time.  And they were forming one in Colorado Springs and were looking to just promote their pure, Aryan, white race agenda in the Colorado Springs area.

ABRAMS:  What did you learn about the Klansmen?  What kind of crimes do you think you were you able to prevent? 

STALLWORTH:  Well, I was more interested, from an intelligence-gathering standpoint—obviously, any crimes that came up we would have followed up on.  But I was mainly involved from the intelligence-gathering aspect.  I do know that they planned several cross-burnings over the year that I had this investigation going, and I knew about those cross-burnings well in advance, so that we would have police officers saturating a particular neighborhood.  And during the entire year of this investigation, at no time was a cross ever burned in Colorado Springs. 

ABRAMS:  Final question.  David Duke, you talked to him on the phone a couple times, and he said to you that he always knows when he‘s talking to a black man on the phone.  He can always tell.  And he was confident that you were a white man? 

STALLWORTH:  I talked to David Duke once or twice a week over the year that this investigation took place.  And David did tell me that he could tell—I had a little fun.  I asked him one time.  I said, “Aren‘t you afraid of being infiltrated by the police or maybe some black person trying to get information on the group?”  He said, no, he never worried about that.

And I asked him why.  He said, “I can always tell when I‘m talking to a black man because they pronounce words and letters a certain way.” 

(LAUGHTER)

And he said, “I can tell that you‘re a pure-blooded white man, because you don‘t pronounce your words in that manner.”  And from that point on, I started pronouncing those words in that manner just to play with him. 

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS:  Ron Stallworth, congratulations on your good work.  I know you‘ve also become an expert in gang violence in this country.  You‘ve written a number of books on that.  Keep up the great work, and thank you very much for coming on the program. 

STALLWORTH:  Thank you for inviting me. 

ABRAMS:  Coming up, many asking why are we covering the Alito hearings?  Others telling me to just shut up and let the hearings speak for themselves. 

Well, I‘m going to respond to that in my closing argument.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  My closing argument.  A memo to those complaining that we should have covered the Alito hearings without interruption rather than offering explanations and context.  I have a nice little stack of e-mails here echoing that sentiment. 

Frank Holcomb from Bradington, Florida says, “I don‘t really need to be hearing you or guests try to explain what‘s going on.  Many of the viewers can think for themselves.”

Andrew writes simply, “Shut up.”

In effect, they and others would like me, us, and the other cable networks covering the hearings to become C-SPAN for the course of the proceedings.  Well, I guess those few purists are a lot smarter than I am. 

For days, I‘ve been watching and listening to each and every word of the hearings.  The senators often made reference to specific cases, obscure legal principles, or used acronyms, Ribar, “KITAN,” (ph) qualified immunity, Lopez, unitary executives, stare decisis, Edpa (ph), the list goes on and on. 

To only a few are these terms and hearings self-explanatory.  Sure, as the legal correspondent, I had to know most of the cases, but still found myself on the set asking my guests questions for clarification.  Then in many instances, I would ask them those same questions on the air. 

Now, to be honest, we received far more mail from those of you asking for explanations of terms or concepts than from those asking me to shut my yap.  But beyond that, at other times, the proceedings were just downright dull, with senators droning on more about themselves and trying to elicit information from Judge Alito. 

C-SPAN is a wonderful network.  I watch it.  But I hope that we can offer more than that, that it‘s not to say that we should never cover an event without interruption.  Thou shall not speak is an often ignored commandment from many anchors.  We should, and I do try, to let compelling and important live events speak for themselves. 

But in my years of covering long-form legal stories at Court TV and here, I‘ve become convinced that context and analysis can make sometimes Byzantine legal language accessible to everyone, including me. 

So while I‘m sure Frank, Andrew and the other critics understanding all the proceedings without any clarification, the rest of us, mostly non-lawyer, non-journalists, found some of it to be arcane and I hope appreciated what expert guests can add.  

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  I‘ve had my say.  Now it‘s time for your rebuttal. 

Yesterday, in my closing argument, Scott Peterson‘s latest shenanigan, applauding Laci‘s mother for her book.  He heard she was donating proceeds to charity.

Diane B. from New York:  “You have the audacity to say that Peterson has the nerve to commend his mother-in-law for her book?  Would you have preferred that he condemn her, then?

No, I would have preferred that he shut up. 

From Illinois, Bobbi Stege:  “He‘s obviously trying to force her hand to donate all the profits from the book to charity so she can‘t keep any of it for her family.”

A.M. Deist from Florida:  “Shame on you.  We‘re in a free society and have the right to free speech.”

That‘s right, A.M.  He‘s free to say it.  I‘m free to criticize him for it.

Your e-mails, abramsreport@msnbc.com.  That‘s it for us for tonight. 

Chris Matthews, HARDBALL, up next.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Will Iran‘s soon rival Iraq as the major focus of U.S. fear?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

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