updated 3/24/2004 12:22:20 PM ET 2004-03-24T17:22:20

Guests: Kristen Breitweiser, Alice Hoglan, Mindy Kleinberg, Erin Brockovich-Ellis, Larry Wiener, Bob Wise, Rory Kennedy

ANNOUNCER:  DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT.

On the hot seat.  Two presidential administrations called to task for what they did or didn‘t do to stop al Qaeda from attacking America. 

Did Bill Clinton and George Bush miss opportunities to prevent this from happening?  Tonight we‘ll hear from three women who lost loved ones on 9/11. 

Erin‘s new crusade.  Her battle against a multimillion-dollar power company resulted in one of the nation‘s biggest class action lawsuits ever and an Academy Award-winning movie based on her life. 

Now, she‘s preparing to square off with the big guys again, this time on the campus of Beverly Hills High.  Tonight, meet the real Erin Brockovich. 

No laughing matter. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They‘re poking fun at us. 

ANNOUNCER:  It‘s the T-shirt that‘s got the governor of West Virginia teed off.  Tonight, he‘ll explain what‘s got him so hot under the collar.

Substituting tonight for Deborah Norville, from Studio 3-K in Rockefeller Center, Dan Abrams. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DAN ABRAMS, HOST:  Hi everyone.  Those stories in just a moment. 

But first, a developing story at this hour.  You are looking at a live picture from Baghdad where attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a hotel housing foreign contractors and journalists. 

The grenade hit the 13th floor of the Sheraton Hotel.  That is it.  A lobby strewn with glass.  There are no reports of casualties.

U.S. soldiers protect both the Sheraton Hotel and the neighboring Palestine Hotel.  Both surrounded by concrete blast walls. 

We will continue to follow the story and continue to bring you any updates as it unfolds. 

Now on to the bipartisan commission investigating the 9/11 attacks.  High-ranking officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations taking lots of tough questions.  At issue, was enough done to stop al Qaeda?

While a preliminary report indicates both administrations choose to use diplomacy instead of military action before 9/11, allowing bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders to continue plotting terror attacks. 

Today, the panel began two days of hearings. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB KERREY, 9/11 COMMISSION:  You said we some balance between military effort and diplomacy, and frankly I‘ve got to say, it seems to me it was very unbalanced in favor of diplomacy. 

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE:  In many cases, some of the linkages that have been made now were not evidenced at the particular time. 

KERREY:  I keep hearing the excuse, we didn‘t have actionable intelligence.  Well, what the hell does that say to al Qaeda?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Both Albright and Secretary of State Colin Powell said there wouldn‘t have been public support to launch a military operation against al Qaeda before 9/11.  And Powell responded to the commission‘s contention that military action could have been used.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE:  Anybody who things that Osama bin Laden might be laying around somewhere and you can pick him up, maybe, good luck.  But that‘s a wish, not a strategy or not a military action. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  The 9/11 commission has until July 26 to release its final report on the attacks, but some victims‘ families are already saying the panel is dancing around the issues and won‘t get to the core of the problem. 

With us tonight are Kristen Breitweiser.  Her husband, Ronald, died in the World Trade Center.  Also with us is Mindy Kleinberg, who lost her husband, Alan, in the trade center, as well.  And Alice Hoglan, whose only son, Mark Bingham, died aboard Flight 93 when it crashed in Shenksville, Pennsylvania.

Thank you to all of you for coming on the program. 

Kristen, let me start with you.  What do you think of the hearings? 

You watched much of them today.  Your thoughts?

KRISTEN BREITWEISER, HUSBAND KILLED ON 9/11:  First of all, I think it‘s excellent that the commission held the hearings with these individuals. 

What I think is unfortunate is that the witnesses today danced around the issues.  They used diplomacy as an excuse. 

And frankly, you know, the State Department was not operating in a vacuum.  We had the intel community replete with instances of precursors, warnings and threats.  And to say that, you know, we needed to handle this in a diplomatic matter, I just think it‘s a lame excuse and it‘s unacceptable. 

And then to listen to the secretary of defense blame it on bad intelligence, not actionable intelligence, it‘s a big blaming game.  And everyone is blaming everyone else, and no one is taking responsibility. 

ABRAMS:  Kris, let me ask you.  If I had asked you yesterday, what do you want to hear?  What are you hoping to hear from them?  What would you have said?

BREITWEISER:  You know, I would have hoped that I would be listening to my leaders, and they would be restoring confidence in me in my nation‘s ability to defend ourselves against terrorism. 

And today, basically, I heard that as a nation, we are not safe, that we are not going to be protected, that an attack could happen at any given moment, and they‘re not going to prevent it. 

And I wonder why we are spending billions of radars on defense, why we are spending billions of dollars on intelligence when I heard an entire day of testimony by very important people with very important jobs telling me that there‘s nothing they can do, that al Qaeda has got them to their knees. 

ABRAMS:  Let‘s listen to Donald Rumsfeld talking about the mentality pre-9/11. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  But imagine that we were back before September 11 and that a U.S. president had looked at the information then available, gone before the Congress and the world said we need to invade Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban and destroy the al Qaeda terrorist network, based on what little was known before September 11.  How many countries would have joined?  Many?  Any?  Not likely. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Alice, what do you make of it?

ALICE HOGLAN, SON KILLED ON 9/11:  Well, I was very interested in what Donald Rumsfeld had to say.  I was especially interested in the tete-a-tete between him and Richard Ben-Veniste, articulate and very well-spoken member of the commission, who rattled off a check list of six or eight examples of just how well known the aviation threat was in the 1990‘s, going back to 1994. 

Indeed the U.S. intelligence committee knew that there were significant threats against commercial aviation, threats of using airliners as weapons against targets on the ground. 

It was very unfortunate that the dots don‘t get connected, that someone did not make an effort to see the whole picture.  I really applaud people like Colleen Rowley who made the attempt to make something of the fact that people were taking aviation lessons in the Midwest without any interest in learning how to land or take off, but just how to steer an aircraft. 

There was much to be made of it, and I am very sorry that the apologists for the Clinton administration, that would be Madeleine Albright, and for the Bush administration, that would be Colin Powell, have done a better job of protecting their interests and their point of view than they have of expressing a real desire to go forward from this point.  I have to agree with Kristen on that. 

The events of September 11 really transcend politicization.  We should be not so concerned with covering our positions as we are in getting together and launching an effective defense against terrorism from this point on. 

ABRAMS:  Let‘s listen to Madeleine Albright.  You make reference to her.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBRIGHT:  The thing that is very hard to explain to people now is how much time we spent on all this and were constantly debating what we could, given a pre-9/11 atmosphere.  It really was very, very different.  And most people thought that we had made up the issues of terrorism. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  Mindy Kleinberg, I‘ll tell you, as I listen to this, there‘s no question that there‘s a lot of this going on, pointing.  It was them; it was them.  We didn‘t know.  We didn‘t know.

But if you think about the pre-9/11 atmosphere, and even though we now know that there was information out there, that if acted on might have been able to help prevent 9/11, there was a mentality pre-9/11 which would have made it very difficult to really, really act. 

Is that an acceptable answer to you?

MINDY KLEINBERG, HUSBAND KILLED ON 9/11:  No.  Because I think what I took away interest from today was that there was a lot of contradictions. 

On the one hand you have everybody saying that there was this pre-9/11 mindset and that they did everything that they could but they, you know, couldn‘t have foreseen.

But they also talked about the millennium plot, which was thwarted. 

OK?  So we did know of a way to be able to thwart a plot. 

So I would have liked today to be more about an honest debate about what we do going forward and perhaps look at what we did differently in order to thwart the millennium plot so that we could have thwarted this plot. 

ABRAMS:  You know what they would say, right?  I mean, look, you‘ve studied all of this as much as anyone.  They would say the millennium plot was stopped by a customs agent who was out there watching very closely, and as a result of them finding this guy, they were able to stop him. 

You know, what do you make of that?

KLEINBERG:  I think if you speak to people who were working in the different agencies at the time, they ratcheted up protocols and procedures.  People in the airports knew, in the airport security, and the screeners knew that there was, you know, a threat.  And you know, they changed what their protocols were.

As far as 9/11 goes, in the summer of 2001, we had—we were on high threat warning.  And there was an FAA circular that said terrorism can occur at any time.  And yet, that did not filter down to airport security and screeners who could have possibly stopped nine of the hijackers that day. 

ABRAMS:  You know, Alice, I asked Kristen this question before.  What did you want to hear?  I mean, what could someone have realistically said today that would have made you say, “Thank you.” 

KLEINBERG:  You know what, I think I would have liked to hear, “You know what?  I‘m sorry.  We didn‘t do enough.  We didn‘t prioritize it.  We made a mistake and we screwed up.  And going forward this is what we‘re going to do so that this doesn‘t happen again.”

ABRAMS:  And Alice, same question to you?

HOGLAN:  Well, I would liked to have heard that these folks are going to go forward in a bipartisan effort to secure our borders, to make sure that people who are allowed on aircraft are properly screened, to make sure that our cockpit doors are secure, to make sure that aviation crews, airline crews are properly trained against threats like this. 

There are very many aviation security deficiencies that exist to this day and as a former flight attendant, I can speak to that. 

ABRAMS:  Kristen, very quickly, does the politicizing of 9/11 bother you quite a bit?

BREITWEISER:  Frankly, it‘s an offensive behavior.  It‘s dishonoring the dead.  And really, we want this removed from politics.  We want answers.  And more than anything, we just want to know that we are safer living here today than we were on the morning of 9/11.  That is a mission that everyone should share worldwide, regardless of political party. 

ABRAMS:  Kristen Breitweiser, Mindy Kleinberg and Alice Hoglan, thanks a lot for taking the time.  Appreciate it. 

KLEINBERG:  Thank you.

HOGLAN:  Thank you very much for having us. 

ABRAMS:  Tomorrow, the 9/11 hearing continues with testimony from CIA Director George Tenet and Richard Clarke, you know, the former national coordinator for counter terrorism who is now saying the Bush administration ignored warnings about 9/11. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  Still to come, a relatively harmless joke turns into a public relations fiasco for Abercrombie and Fitch.  Tonight, West Virginia‘s governor tells us why he wants this T-shirt permanently shelved. 

But next, she fought a major legal battle against the big guys and won.  Then, Julia Roberts turned her into a Hollywood legend. 

JULIA ROBERTS, ACTRESS:  It would probably be easiest if I just squeezed back there and poked around myself. 

ANNOUNCER:  Now, the real Erin Brockovich is gearing up for a sequel. 

And wait until you hear who she‘s taking on this time.

DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT is coming right back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Erin Brockovich is back, and she‘s leading another crusade.  Four years ago Brockovich became a household name after a blockbuster movie called “Erin Brockovich.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

ROBERTS:  There‘s two things that aggravate me, Mr. Masry.  Being ignored and being lied to. 

ALBERT FINNEY, ACTOR:  I never lied.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  In the movie version of the true story, Julia Roberts played the single mom who took on a giant utility company that was poisoning the residents of a small California town. 

Brockovich helped win one of the nation‘s biggest class action lawsuits ever. 

Now, Erin Brockovich Ellis—she‘s since remarried—and the lawyer she still works with, Edward Masry, are taking on the city of Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills Unified School District and three oil companies. 

Brockovich claims oil wells on the campus of Beverly Hills High School are spewing toxic chemicals, which she says has made hundreds of students, staff and alumni sick with cancer and other illnesses. 

Now in part because of her digging into the matter, L.A. County prosecutors are investigating possible criminal environmental violations involving the oil rig at Beverly Hills High. 

Let me point out that oil rigs in and around residential areas in Los Angeles, not necessarily uncommon.  City officials are disputing the allegations, saying the cancers listed by Brockovich aren‘t caused by petroleum or petroleum products. 

I‘m joined now by Erin Brockovich-Ellis, investigator with the law firm Masry and Vititoe. 

Thanks a lot for coming on the program.  Good to see you.

ERIN BROCKOVICH-ELLIS, INVESTIGATOR, MASRY AND VITITOE:  Thanks for having me. 

ABRAMS:  Before we talk about the details of lawsuit, let‘s just talk about life as Erin Brockovich for a moment.  This huge movie comes out, and suddenly you are a household name. 

How is it sort of going out and sort of pulling out your driver‘s license, when they ask you for I.D., and they say, “Wait a second.  Erin Brockovich, wow!”

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  It‘s been a very surreal experience.  It‘s been a good one.  On many occasions it‘s has been frightening for me, as well. 

ABRAMS:  Why?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  I don‘t know, you know, I mean just suddenly because your name is out there and then people have certain ideas and expectations of what you are and who you are.  And you know, the name recognition and it‘s kind of unnerving. 

ABRAMS:  Is it hard to work as an investigator at a law firm, being Erin Brockovich?  You‘re not able to do anything undercover any more?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  That‘s right.  It totally blew my cover. 

ABRAMS:  You know?  I mean, you know?  So does that make it difficult?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  It can.  It‘s a double-edged sword.  You know, I mean, when they find out it‘s me, they either will give me information and public records and we can work well together or they just immediately don‘t want to give me anything.  So...

ABRAMS:  Restaurant reservations and stuff?  “It‘s Erin Brockovich.”

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  Yes, right. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Let‘s get series.  All right, let‘s talk about the lawsuit with regard to Beverly Hills.  What is the claim?  What do you say is going on at the school?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  OK.  Well, what‘s going on at the school right now, is that there are 18 operational well-heads underneath the high school that are producing crude and they are producing and processing natural gas. 

There are a lot of sick people, about 400 with cancer.  And most recently, we have got gotten into some state agency documents and records that indicate there is a problem. 

For example, I have here an investigator who went out to the site that concluded there was a potential explosion factor at this facility on the school. 

Another inspector writes in that his greatest concern is the children, and that any parent should be concerned about their child in this type of environment. 

There is information in public records that show the notice of violations, that the facility is leaking emissions, that the facility has an open pit on the campus that is releasing toxins into the air, which the D.A. is currently investigating. 

And there is information in these state agency records that conclude there is, in fact, a toxic cancer risk of 30 in a million, which exceeds their rules, and nobody is saying anything. 

ABRAMS:  Let me ask you a couple questions about this. 

First of all, “Beverly Hills Courier,” a newspaper out there, a reporter by the name of Norma Zager, she investigates this.  She says she becomes an expert on many of the toxins involved.  She becomes an expert on these oil drums, et cetera.

And she, after investigating it, talking to epidemiologists, talking to toxicologists, says that there‘s nothing there‘s as much, a quote in the article, “there‘s as much chance of getting a cancer as from a car stereo.” 

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  Well, you know, I can‘t speak for her, and she isn‘t here.  But my position on that is she is a journalist and not the epidemiologist or the expert. 

These issues will be tried in court next July.  That‘s the appropriate place for the argument to happen.  And so when I hear that, that is her opinion, she‘s clearly entitled to it but not necessarily facts. 

ABRAMS:  Some people have said that your firm has been too aggressive in these cases, that there have been a couple of days cases in the past, for example, where your firm has said that there were environmental problems.  They were investigated and it turned out to be nothing. 

Is it possible that, you know, Erin Brockovich and not just you but your firm has just been going too far and trying to find at times cancers and disease where actually it was just natural causes?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  No, I don‘t agree with that and certainly not in this particular case.  We‘re talking about children, and we‘re talking about—excuse me—an onshore oil platform, if you will, operating underneath a high school.  That‘s just risky business. 

And I didn‘t really think that a rocket scientist had to come in here to conclude or make any associations.  You have this many sick children.  You have a facility that has been—repeatedly had notice of violations for releases of emissions and problems that we would get into this kind of debate. 

It shouldn‘t be there.  It shouldn‘t be on top of this campus.  And it‘s a danger to the children of today and in the future. 

ABRAMS:  I didn‘t know about this, but this is part of research.  Apparently there were six subpoenas and a judge‘s order for you and your colleagues to turn over testing information to the city of Beverly Hills. 

And, you know, the argument, of course, would go if this is so important, if this is so dangerous, why wouldn‘t you turn over this information?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  That is not true, because we did turn over the information.  And from the very onset of this, we asked the school district to come out and meet with us.  They sent their attorneys instead.  They sat in the same room with us.  We gave them the information.  They‘ve had it all along. 

So we‘ve never withheld anybody any information, other than currently there is information that indicates there is a problem.  But they‘re not sharing it. 

ABRAMS:  What‘s—Beverly Hills is a very wealthy community.  Is the community up in arms about this?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  There has been mixed reactions.  There are parents that are clearly concerned.  There have been numerous phone calls to us.  There are parents who are moving their kids.  There are parents who aren‘t certain what to do and who to listen to. 

So I happen to be one of these people that is an advocate for a person‘s right to know.  There is clearly data and information sitting in state agencies, in public records that are showing the danger, and I think that they have a right to know. 

ABRAMS:  Enjoying what you‘re doing?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  I think so. 

ABRAMS:  In general, I mean, you know, you‘re still out there getting aggressive, trying to find the bad guys?

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  Well, you know, I think it‘s important.  And it‘s all of our duties to make sure that schools and our children are safe and protected and getting information out there. 

ABRAMS:  Erin Brockovich, it‘s great to see you again.  We‘ve talked before, and it‘s nice to talk to you again. 

BROCKOVICH-ELLIS:  Thanks.  It‘s nice to be here. 

ABRAMS:  For the other side of the story, we turn to Larry Wiener.  In addition to be being the city attorney of Beverly Hills, he‘s also a former student of Beverly Hills High School. 

Thanks very much for coming on the program.  We appreciate it.

LARRY WIENER, BEVERLY HILLS CITY ATTORNEY:  Thank you. 

ABRAMS:  So, what do you make of Ms. Brockovich‘s allegations?

WIENER:  Well, we have been certainly concerned about the allegations that were made.  And in fact when these were first made, and we learned about them through the media, we immediately took a look at what was going on at the high school. 

We immediately engaged nationally renowned experts to come to the high school and test the air, the soil, the soil gas.  And the Air Quality Management District, which is the regional agency for southern California in charge of regulating air toxics also came to the high school campus and tested extensively. 

And no one has seemed to be able to duplicate the results that Ms.

Brockovich and Mr. Masry seem to have or at least claim to have found. 

ABRAMS:  It‘s a lot of cases of cancer, thought, isn‘t it?  I mean, you know, just looking at it as a layperson, and again I haven‘t really researched all the studies and compared them.  But as a layperson, it‘s a lot of cases of cancer in a small geographical area. 

WIENER:  Well, it‘s interesting, the—one of the first things that we heard was that there was an excessive amount of cancers at Beverly Hills High School. 

And so one of the first things we asked Ms. Brockovich and Mr. Masry was can you provide us with whatever numbers you have about the excess cancers?  And what they told us eventually, after we had to go to court to ask for it, was that they had no epidemiological study. 

In fact, there‘s only been one review of epidemiological data that was done by the University of Southern California, the tech school of medicine and their cancer surveillance program.  And that program found that there were no excess cancers among the population in Beverly Hills, at least among the young adult population of Beverly Hills, which was our immediate concern. 

ABRAMS:  So then why is the D.A. investigating if this is such a no-brainer?  That, you know, as you point out, no one has been able to match this, et cetera.  Why is the D.A. taking this that seriously?

WIENER:  Well, as Ms. Brockovich pointed out, the air quality management district did cite the oil well operator who runs that oil well for several violations, and I imagine the D.A. is looking at that. 

I don‘t know what else the D.A. may be looking at.  But we were fortunate that the Air Quality Management District was testing the air on the Beverly Hills High School campus at the same time that some of those violations were occurring.  And what the Air Quality Management District found was that those violations were not having an impact on the air quality at the campus. 

ABRAMS:  Have you done a repeat of your testing?  I mean, I would think if this is important enough to the city that your first round of at the timing, et cetera, where you say that they weren‘t able to find anything.

Have you gone back at different times, different places and said, “You know what?  Maybe the first round wouldn‘t necessarily have picked it up”?

WIENER:  Absolutely.  Keep some mind that, you know, Beverly Hills, although it has an international reputation, is really a very small town.  There is one high school in the town.  And that high school has been attended by city council members and school board members.  The children of the city council members and school board members went to that high school.  I went to that high school.  The superintendent of school‘s son is a sophomore at that high school.

There is no one who‘s more concerned about the conditions of that high school than the parents.  And it‘s the parents who have been in charge of this testing. 

And so immediately upon these allegations arising, again, the Air Quality Management District were the first folks on the site.  Then the school district followed with testing.  The city and the school district together hired a firm, Camp, Dresser & McKee (ph) to come out to the site and do testing.  That testing was done last...

ABRAMS:  Very quickly.  Very quickly.  I‘ve only got a few seconds left. 

Is it not true what Ms. Brockovich was just saying, about parents—she said it‘s been mixed.  It‘s been mixed, the reaction in Beverly Hills.  But there have been a number of parents who have been concerned enough that they‘re leaving town and that they‘re taking other measures to protect their children?

WIENER:  Well, the—I have not heard of anyone who has left town over this.  We are certainly testing.  We‘ve tested extensively.  We tested last spring, last summer, in the winter.  We‘re testing again in the spring. 

People are certainly concerned.  We are concerned.  But to date, we have been gratified that all of our tests have show that there is no health and safety problems. 

ABRAMS:  But you‘re going to—But you‘re going to keep investigating, right?  I mean, as far as you‘re concerned, this is not over?

WIENER:  We will continue to test.  We have made that commitment to all the parents who currently have students at the high school and the parents who will have students there in the future. 

ABRAMS:  All right.  Larry Wiener, thanks a lot for coming on the program. 

WIENER:  Thank you very much. 

ABRAMS:  Coming up, Abercrombie & Fitch stirring the pot again.  This time a T-shirt poking fun at West Virginia.  As you can imagine, some locals don‘t think that is funny. 

Now the state‘s governor is demanding that the shirt be taken off the shelves.  He joins me next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

ABRAMS:  The clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch is known for a lot of things, including an ability to get people mad. 

No stranger to controversy, its sexy ads have raised the ire of many a parent.  In 2002, a line of T-shirts depicting stereotypes of Asians were deemed racially insensitive and eventually it pulled them from the shelves.  Abercrombie & Fitch‘s popular catalogues have included naked models, suggesting to many readers risky sexual behavior among teens. 

A public awareness campaign and boycott was launched against the chain last Christmas.  It discontinued the catalogue.  Well, now Abercrombie & Fitch is selling a T-shirt that has the West Virginia governor really teed off.  The shirt spoofs a West Virginia stereotype as a haven for incest with the slogan “It‘s All Relative in Virginia.” 

Governor Bob Wise fired off a letter to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch demanding that it stop selling the T-shirts at once. 

West Virginia Governor Bob Wise joins us now from the capital city of Charleston.  Abercrombie & Fitch declined our invitation this evening. 

Governor, thank you very much for coming on the program.  Appreciate it. 

GOV. BOB WISE (D), WEST VIRGINIA:  Good evening. 

ABRAMS:  All right, so what‘s the problem with the T-shirts? 

WISE:  Well, the problem is, I live in a state, a great state of 1.8 million people.  And we have a major company, a company that makes quality apparel that doesn‘t need to stoop to these kind of things that has launched a T-shirt with a slanderous, totally unfounded and untrue stereotype, at a time when we‘re making great strides.

Over 20 million people chose to visit West Virginia as tourists last year.  We have the lowest violent crime rate in the nation.  We have the highest rate of home ownership.  We have an incredible amount of things going for us, not the least of which is one of the largest percentages of men and women wearing the uniform of our country.  And so there is a time at which we say we don‘t have to take these kinds of unfounded stereotypes anymore.  Let‘s talk about what is positive about West Virginia.  Abercrombie & Fitch could do a lot that way.

ABRAMS:  Well, let me ask you.  You know what they would say.  They would say, this is a joke.  We‘re just kidding around.  It‘s not to be taken seriously.  Who is actually going to take it seriously?  Your response? 

WISE:  A lot of people take it seriously.

For many states, and particularly small states, the only contact that millions of Americans have is often through mass media marketing.  So for a lot of contact that people have with my small state, it may be in a T-shirt that they are picking up at a Western store someplace.  And so that‘s not what we want out there.  We have a positive story to tell about men and women in uniform, about the low rate of crime in West Virginia, about a great place to raise and bring up children. 

That‘s the story that we want to be telling and not having to deal with unfounded stereotypes, which, incidentally, if it were some other state—and which we have seen Abercrombie & Fitch unfortunately has pushed the edge before, the catalogue that they had to withdraw at Christmas, for instance, the T-shirts you talked about that offended Asian-Americans. 

Well, this is simply the latest episode.  They don‘t need to do it.  In fact, I would be glad to work with the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch about a positive campaign.  They could sell their T-shirts and at the same time get a positive message out about the real things and that are happening good in West Virginia. 

ABRAMS:  But what could you do that would be funny?  Give me an example of something really funny about West Virginia that they could put on a T-shirt that they would say, oh, the governor had a good one there? 

WISE:  Well, that‘s what I‘m happy to sit down with them about.  They have got great mass marketers.  Obviously, they are a quality company.  Look at their stock rating, and so I‘m sure we can work something out.  But this is too good of a company to have to stoop to this kind of—in many ways, almost character assassination, when there‘s so much good that is happening in my state and in a lot of other places, too. 

ABRAMS:  Let me read you the statement from Abercrombie & Fitch: “We love West Virginia.  We love California, Florida, Connecticut, Hawaii and Nebraska, too.”  They sound like Howard Dean.  “Abercrombie & Fitch was born and raised in the USA and we honor all 50 states in the Union.”

There was another shirt, if we can put it up, spoofing New Mexico, that read, what is it, “40 Million Squirrels Can‘t Be Wrong.”  They were just kidding around in that one and they are kidding around in this one, they say.

WISE:  But, unfortunately, with what they chose to put on this T-shirt isn‘t something that most people kid around with.  The allegations deal with domestic abuse.  It is a serious situation in homes across all of this country.  It is not something to kid about.  It‘s not squirrels.

And so therefore, and simply admit you are wrong.  They have done it several times before.  The public accepts that and we‘ll move on.  And maybe we can work together and design a funny T-shirt that is a positive statement about my dad and indeed other states as well.  Abercrombie & Fitch ought to take this challenge up and say, OK, let‘s see what good we can get out of this.

ABRAMS:  How did this stereotype start about West Virginia?  It has been out there for so long.  I have no idea where it even came from.  Do you know where it came from?

WISE:  Well, it‘s a stereotype I think that really applies to much of rural, whether Appalachian or indeed the entire country, about rural areas.  And it comes from people who don‘t know.

And yet the innuendo that is on this T-shirt is unfortunately a problem that is in urban areas as well.  The fact is, it‘s a very serious matter, wherever it is.  It ought not to treated so cavalierly.  And, indeed, that‘s why I‘m offended by it.  It‘s not just West Virginia.  Yes, I‘m offended by that, but I‘m also offended that it would be so cavalierly tossed about.  Abercrombie & Fitch is too good a company to have to be stooping to this. 

ABRAMS:  Governor, are your constituents, are most of the people you are talking to genuinely upset about this?  Or do they say, ah, come on, just one of those dumb comments?  Are they really bugged by this? 

WISE:  I‘m a West Virginian.  I was brought up here.  I‘m irritated, I‘m upset by it.  And I know a lot of others are, too.  Our phones have been ringing off the hook on it. 

It gets too easy just to step aside.  Listen, there are 1.8 million people who get up every morning, work hard, are in the armed forces of our country, are doing everything that society asked them to do, working hard at raising their kids.  And to just have this kind of stereotype continually put on you, it‘s time you say enough is enough.  Abercrombie & Fitch doesn‘t have to make maybe doing this kind of unfounded statement.

ABRAMS:  And West Virginia very often has some good college sports teams as well.  I follow college sports.

(CROSSTALK)

WISE:  We have great college sports.  But we also give every student who makes a B average in high school a promised scholarship to any college or university in our state.  We also, for instance, as I say, have tourism, our fastest growing industry.  Millions of people have found West Virginia to be the kind of place they want to come and visit and come back again.  That‘s what Abercrombie & Fitch can help us promote.

ABRAMS:  All right, well, I may want to come visit one of these days. 

I‘m going to give you a call, Governor.  Thank you very much for coming on.

WISE:  We want you.  And we got plenty of good T-shirt for you. 

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS:  Thanks a lot, Governor.  Good to have you on the program. 

Coming up, who would give a supposedly suicidal child a gun to play with? 

Rory Kennedy says it took everything she had not to intervene as she filmed a documentary about a little boy.  That story is up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Mel Gibson‘s movie “The Passion” brining in megamillions, but now the question, should he share the wealth with the people who helped make it?  Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  We just had to ask, what‘s Mel Gibson going to do with all the money he has made from his movie “The Passion of the Christ,” which, at last count, has taken in almost $300 million?  In his weekly column, the editor-in-chief of “Variety” magazine, Peter Bart, wrote an open letter to the Gibson in the form of a memo from Gibson‘s cast and crew in Italy. 

Part of the memo says: “We wish to congratulate you on your movie‘s amazing success.  While expressing our appreciation, we would also like to raise what we acknowledge to be a sensitive issue, namely, what do you plan to do with all that money?  We trust you will reconnect with your faithful cast and crew, since all of us worked for scale, Italian scale at that.  Filmmakers like George Lucas on ‘Star Wars‘ and Peter Jackson on ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ dispensed bonuses to their minions totaling many millions of dollars.  We feel we deserve a piece of the action.  We believe your primary motivation in making ‘Passion” was to spread understanding, not hate.  Now comes the time to put your money where your mouth/philosophy is.  While you‘re doing it, Mel, consider the possibility of some bonuses for your cast and crew.”

Bart‘s memo to Gibson also says the actors from “The Passion” would

like another gig since they‘ve had difficulty securing other parts because

·         quote—“Directors seem wary about using actors whose faces are on emblazoned on screens as Christ-killers.”  Maybe Gibson can use them in his next movie, he says, the ancient story of the Jewish Maccabees who fought for religious freedom before the birth of Christ.  Might also make a good movie.

ANNOUNCER:  Up next, how does a 7-year-old boy go from suicide attempts, attacks on animals and antidepressants to the Boy Scouts and the honor roll?  Rory Kennedy with the story of a boy‘s life when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  There is a fascinating new documentary premiering tomorrow night on HBO called “A Boy‘s Life” by filmmaker Rory Kennedy.  It deals with Robert Oliver, a 7-year-old boy with plenty of problems.  He takes antidepressants, Ritalin.  His grandmother who is raising him says he has tried to commit suicide and has killed four cats and three dogs living at his really shack home in rural Pennsylvania. 

In the movie, Rory Kennedy, who also happens to be the daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, sets out to explore why Robert is in the situation he is in.  Has social services failed to address the needs of poor children who suffer from mental illness?  Kennedy follows Robert for more than two years, shedding light on the emotional dysfunction within his family and the positive results that can occur in someone‘s life when people care.

Joining me now is filmmaker Rory Kennedy.

Thanks a lot for coming on the program. 

RORY KENNEDY, FILMMAKER:  Thank you for having me.

ABRAMS:  So, when you started making this movie, it wasn‘t supposed to be about this boy? 

KENNEDY:  We had initially set out to make a documentary about welfare reform and how it was impacting children in particular.

There were about 100,000 children who were going to be turned off the

rolls.  And many of those children suffered from mental illness.  So we

were looking for a family who fit that profile.  We were told about Robert

from his therapist, Dr. Fee, about a young child who had suffered from a lot of different mental illnesses and who had tried to commit suicide, had killed four dogs and three cats. 

We went down and met Robert.  And we met this child who couldn‘t sit in one place for more than a few minutes.  He was banging his head against the wall.  And he clearly had a lot of issues that he was facing.  But as we spent more time with him, it was clear that it was a more complicated situation than we originally thought. 

ABRAMS:  Let me just take one step back.  So you go to the family and you say, we would like to follow you for the next amount of years and they say what?  Did you pay them?  How does it work when you go to the family and you say, we want to film your life for two years? 

KENNEDY:  Well, you know, I always feel that it takes an enormous amount of courage to let a family—to let a crew follow you for a certain period of time.  We didn‘t know how long the filming would take.  It ended up taking two years. 

We initially set out to only film for six months or so.  And the filming kept going.  The story kept evolving, getting more and more complicated.  And they were incredible to open up their lives to us and let us in and really share so much of their experience with us. 

ABRAMS:  There is a scene that I know had a very big impact on you.  And this is with Robert handling a gun.  Let‘s watch and then I‘ll ask you about it. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “A BOY‘S LIFE”)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You can‘t even shoot.  You can‘t even shoot. 

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Now don‘t aim it at nobody, now.  Aim it down at the ground.  Up in the sky.  OK.  It takes all you got.  You can‘t even shoot. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ABRAMS:  You say that, in the two years of filming this movie, the film, it was the one time that you literally wanted to step in and change something that was happening.

KENNEDY:  Yes, there were a couple moments, but that was certainly one of them. 

ABRAMS:  What was it about it that sort of bothered you? 

KENNEDY:  Well, obviously, seeing this 7-year-old child holding a gun and his grandmother teaching him how to use it is very disturbing. 

ABRAMS:  Particularly a mentally disturbed—a child who was having the sort of problems he was having. 

KENNEDY:  Yes, well, I think for any child, really.

ABRAMS:  Yes.  Well, all right, yes.

KENNEDY:  But it was very difficult to witness.  It was also a little scary, because we hear that there‘s no bullets in the gun, but you never know for sure. 

And you always hear horror stories.  And that was fairly early on in the filmmaking.  And I think it was one of our initial indicators that the grandmother didn‘t always have the best judgment when it came to Robert and his behavior. 

ABRAMS:  Did she say anything to you about that when that happened?  Did she say, look, children learn how to use guns every day in America and this is just another?  Or she just didn‘t say anything about it at all?

KENNEDY:  She didn‘t really try to defend her position.  But I think that, you know, for people who watch that scene, that it is very disturbing. 

And what we saw with Robert was a pretty significant contrast with his behavior at home, where he was more out of control, vs. his behavior at school, where he was an honor roll student.  And this is a child who has enormous potential.  In this scene here, he gets on the A honor roll. 

ABRAMS:  So, how did it happen?  You come into this film.  And this is a kid who has been killing animals in his backyard, lots of problems.  And what happened?  How is it that he reaches that point?

KENNEDY:  Well, just to clarify, when we went into the situation, we had heard that he had tried to commit suicide, that he had killed these animals.  But I would say that that is really alleged at this point.  That‘s what we heard from the grandmother and I‘m not sure that that was entirely true. 

I think that what this story shows is, you know, this is a child whose life was really heading and spiraling out of control.  And with the intervention of social services, with the education that he was getting there—his teachers intervened.  His therapist, Dr. Fee, made a big impact on his life.  And I think they made a world of difference for this young child. 

ABRAMS:  Tell me about his mother and how she ended up making the decision or asking her mother to take care of him.

KENNEDY:  Well, I think his mother,  Robanna, is a wonderful woman.  I think she suffered from very low self-esteem.

ABRAMS:  She was raped, right?  I mean, that‘s...

KENNEDY:  She had been raped.  That‘s correct. 

And she had a lot of challenges in her own life.  But by the end of the two years of filmmaking, she—I think she herself had a significant turnaround.  And I don‘t want to tell the end of the film, but I think everybody during the course of film has a significant shift that takes place. 

ABRAMS:  And there is a custody—it‘s a battle that goes on between grandmother and mother? 

KENNEDY:  Yes, internally. 

ABRAMS:  Right. 

KENNEDY:  It wasn‘t in the courts.  The mother and grandmother are fighting for custody of Robert and his younger brother, Benji.

ABRAMS:  Well, Rory Kennedy, as a filmmaker these days, to have your film on HBO is a pretty big deal. 

KENNEDY:  Thank you. 

ABRAMS:  So, congratulations on the film.

KENNEDY:  Thank you. 

ABRAMS:  And good luck.  That‘s tomorrow night? 

KENNEDY:  Yes, tomorrow night, 7:30, HBO. 

ABRAMS:  Thanks a lot for coming in.

KENNEDY:  Thank you for having me.

ABRAMS:  Up next, it‘s hard to believe, but it‘s been 10 years since the death of Kurt Cobain.  When we come back, a look ahead to tomorrow, a day to remember in pop culture history. 

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ABRAMS:  Ten years ago, Kurt Cobain took his own life right in the middle of his career.  The grunge       generation fans have not forgotten his music, nor have some given up on some conspiracy theories about his death.

Tomorrow night, Cobain‘s biographer, Charles Cross, on the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain‘s death, also the story of, yes, Cobain‘s widow, Courtney Love, and why she seems so out of control again. 

Thanks for watching.  I‘ll be back at 6:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night on “THE ABRAMS REPORT” and then again right here tomorrow night, filling in for Deborah. 

Up next, Joe Scarborough.  He asks, is there any truth to reports that John Kerry attended an anti-war meeting in the ‘70s where the assassination of senators was discussed?  “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” is up next. 

Thanks for watching. 

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2004 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2004 FDCH e-Media, Inc. (f/k/a/ Federal Document Clearing House Inc., eMediaMillWorks, Inc.), ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and FDCH e-Media, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,