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tv   PBS News Hour  PBS  May 16, 2011 10:00pm-11:00pm PDT

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captioning sponsored by macneil/lehrer productions >> ifill: communities along the mississippi emptied and residents sought higher ground after authorities opened floodgates on saturday. good evening. i'm gwen ifill. >> suarez: and i'm ray suarez. on the newshour tonight, tom bearden reports from louisiana on the decision to divert the river away from major cities, a move that's affecting families along the way. >> reporter: a number of small towns are bracing for what could be record high water.
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>> ifill: then we analyze the fallout from the arrest of i.m.f. chief dominique strauss- kahn on sexual assault charges. >> suarez: we talk with binyamin appelbaum of the "new york times" about raising the federal debt ceiling as the government hits its limit for borrowing today. >> ifill: in advance of tonight's pbs documentary about the "freedom riders," judy woodruff talks with two who reenacted the trip. >> you believe in something that is so right, so good and necessary that you're prepared to stand up and be willing to die for it. >> suarez: plus, as the space shuttle launches, we profile poet tracy k. smith, who writes about exploring the universe and ourselves. >> ifill: that's all ahead on tonight's newshour. major funding for the pbs newshour has been provided by: in 1968, as whaling continued worldwide, the first recordings of humpback songs were released.
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( whale singing ) public reaction led to international bans. whale populations began to recover. at pacific life, the whale symbolizes what is possible if people stop and think about the future. pacific life-- the power to help you succeed. >> i want to know what the universe... >> looks like. >> feels like. >> from deep space. >> to a microbe. >> i can contribute to the world by pursuing my passion for science. >> it really is the key to the future. >> i want to design... >> a better solar cell. >> i want to know what's really possible. >> i want to be the first to cure cancer. >> people don't really understand why things work. i want to be that person that finds out why. chevron. we may have more in common than you think. >> and by bnsf railway.
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>> and by the bill and melinda gates foundation. dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance to live a healthy, productive life. and with the ongoing support of these institutions and foundations. and... this program was made possible by the corporation for public broadcasting. and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> ifill: towns across part of louisiana's cajun country lay all but abandoned today, awaiting a deluge from the mississippi river. water began pouring across the countryside after engineers opened a major spillway on saturday. the plan was to ease pressure on baton rouge and new orleans, downriver. and today, governor bobby jindal said it's working. >> in 1968 as whaling continued worldwide, the first recordings of hump back songs were releaseded. >> the bottom line is modestly
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good use in terms of the crests have been lowered modestly in terms of the amount of water projected in a number of places in louisiana stretching from north louisiana down south in the spill way as well as here in baton rouge. but there is still significant amount of water coming our way, even with the lower projections, even with the lower predictions for the operation of the spill way, we are still looking at a very significant amount of water, setting some historic records coming our way. >> suarez: that water is expected to deluge a number of towns within days and local officials warned residents to prepare for a big hit. newshour correspondent tom bearden reports from the town of krotz springs, louisiana. >> reporter: the mississippi riverhe massive flood-control system that has evolvedver the last 90 years, but it's been nearly 40 yearsrs since people in south louisiana have had to deal with the possibility of devastating losses intentionally triggered by government decisions. this weekend the army corps of
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engineers began to open the flood gates of the morganza spill way to reduce pressure on the levees that protect more than half a million people in baton rouge and new orleans. knowingly putting farmland and several small communities in harm's way. about 25,000 people live in the flood zone. colonel ed fleming is in arge of flood way operations for the corps. >> we do take all the advantages and disadvantages into account. we understand the human impacts. we understand the environmental impacts. we understand the engineering impacts. and so none of these decisions are easy. by the time some of these things get to my level they're all hard decisions. so i don't take them lightly. but there are criteria that go into making it. >> reporter: the water coming through the spill way will make its way down through the atchafalaya river basin. this is one of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in that community and people here spent the weekend making their final preparations.
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about 500 people live here. on sunday we found numerous families loading their belongings into pick-up trucks and trailers and moving to higher ground. at least one family decided to simply haul grandma's mobile home out of the flood zone. last week town officials decided they needed to do more to protect the 250 homes and the nearby oil refinery. so they called in the louisiana national guard. they've been working around the clock to build a two-mile- long temporary levy. the major is running the operation. >> we're using reclaimed as fault provided by the department of transportation as a base course. that base course is bringing us from a natural elevation up to 24 feet from where the flood stage is predicted to be. >> reporter: even with the emergency levy and other existing levees, the parish government decided to issue a mandatory evacuation order for krotz springs. yesterday afternoon caravans of sheriff's deputies,
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municipal polic officers and national guardsmen were going door to door telling people to leave, but the reality is that a mandatory evacuation isn't really mandatory. people can stay with their property if they want to. angel elaine gillery had decided to stay because there is their dream home. only two years old. >> we've been planning it for ten years. we eventually got comfortable enough on our feet that we could afford it. we built it. we built it. we built it to withstand hurricanes. >> i have faith that this levy that they're building is going to hold. it's going to work. before they start it, i was very scared. i didn't want it there. and then once i saw what they were doing, i got very comfortable. >> reporter: the gillerees have flood insurance and believe their home is at a sufficiently high elevation to escape flooding. but many of their neighbors don't have flood insurance. this woman who lives a couple of miles away, says she isn't going to take the chance. she is 86 years old, old
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enough to have lived through the 1927 deluge and those that followed. what do you do when it floods around here? >> g wit the flow. >> reporter: go with the flow. we heard that they said over in the community center just a couple of days ago, that there's going to be 15 feet of water right where we're sitting right now. what do you think about that? >> well, i better get out of town because i can't swim. >> reporter: whether staying our leaving, none of the residents we spoke with seemed angry at the government's decision to release the water. in fact they expressed immense gratitude for the louisiana national guard. >> i have one pork chop left. >> reporter: angel and wayne have been cooking hot lunches for the soldiers for the past week. >> they're out here trying to protect our house. this least we can do is try to give them something decent to eat. some of these guys are working 14, 18-hour days. >> reporter: what kind of reaction do you get from the soldiers when you deliver the food? >> lots of smiles. >> lots of smiles. >> reporter: the crisis has
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brought the soldiers and the town together. >> when you come to a community like this and you're embraced like that, it gives meaning to neighbors helping neighbors and protecting what matters which are the two are the leadership things for the guard. >> reporter: it's not just homes that will be affected by the flood waters. already well established crops of corn and other commodities will be destroyed. the state's agriculture department estimates 18,000 acres of crops will be lost. still colonel fleming says it was the right decision. he says they're opening the gates gradually to give people time to get out and allow wildlife to react. >> from a human environment standpoint, we want to make sure folks acknowledge that water is coming, although we've been talking about it for a long time, the water is coming. they get some time to evacuate. number two from an engineering perspective we don't want to open up the spill way very quickly and scour out the facility and the structure itself and then have problems with the stability of the structure. and then third from an environmental standpoint,
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there are concerns that there's a lot of wildlife in there. when they see water coming they're going to be tired and running away from it. they're going to try to get to higher ground. if we can have a slow rise, that also takes into account the bears, the deer and the other wildlife that are in the flood way that need to get out and get to higher ground. >> reporter: the highest river level, the crest, hasn't reached this stretch of the river yet and won't for several more days. and even after it has passed, it will take weeks for the water levels to go back to normal. several people told us that one of the great ironies of the flood of 2011 is that this region has been suffering from a severe drought. even as the run-off from record-setting rainfall in the midwest has filled their rivers to the brim. >> ifill: still to come on the newshour, the sexual assault charges against the head of the i.m.f.; the deadline for the debt limit; the story of the freedom riders; and poetry about space exploration. but first, the other news of the day.
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here's hari sreenivasan. >> sreenivasan: space shuttle "endeavour" began a 16-day flight today, the next to the last for the shuttle program. the launch attracted a large crowd, including the wounded wife of the mission commander. >> 4, 3, 2, 1. and lift-off. >> endeavor blasted off at 8:56 a.m. from cape canaveral florida. its rocket boosters leaving a trail of smoke. >> endeavor is on orbit safely. it's going to perform a great mission. we'll see her back here on june 1. a great day here at the kennedy space center for the shuttle program. >> reporter: a crowd estimated at 350,000-400,000 looked on as the space craft disappeared into the skies. they included arizona congressman gabby giffords whose commander mark kelly leads the six-man crew. giffords was shot in the head at a political event in january. she and some of her staffers were flown in from a houston rehabilitation facility to watch the launch.
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>> were sort of speechless during this process. i can't say there were a lot of words. you know, during the viewing. but she did at the end say to me, "good stuff. good stuff." >> reporter: this was giffords' second trip to the kennedy space center in recent weeks. endeavor was originally scheduled for an april flight but that was scrubbed by a problem in a key power unit. this will be endeavor's 25th mission. it joined the shuttle fleet after challenger was lost in a 1986 explosion. on this mission, endeavor will deliver a $2 billion cosmic ray detector to the international space station. scientists hope to use the device to study the origins of the universe. the shuttle atlantis will make the program's last flight most likely in july. wall street never got off the ground today >> sreenivasan: wall street never got off the ground today amid concerns about european debt and unease about the u.s. economy. the dow jones industrial average
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lost 47 points to close at 12,548. the nasdaq fell 46 points to close at 2782. donald trump will not be joining the republican prpresidential field. the reality tv star and real estate magnate announced his decision in a statement today. he said he could have won, but that he's not ready to leave the private sector. over the weekend, another potential candidate, former arkansas governor mike huckabee, also declined to join the race. israel's frontiers were calm today after a sunday of violence that left 15 people dead. hundreds of people crashed border barriers with syria and lebanon to protest israel's founding. others tried to enter from gaza. the crowds clashed with israeli troops, who opened fire. today the palestinian authority declared three days of mourning for the kied. israel and the u.s. accused the syrians of inciting the riots to divert attention from the uprising there. and in syria, refugees from a border town streamed into lebanon to escape deadly shelling. witnesses said at least eight people died there on sunday.
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the syrian army had surrounded the town last week. and thousands of people marched in a suburb of damascus after nightfall. it was the biggest protest there in three weeks. a war crimes prosecutor has asked the international criminal court to issue arrest warrants for libyan leader moammar qaddafi and top lieutenants. luis moreno-ocampo said today the regime committed crimes against humanity by targeting civilians in a crackdown against rebels. >> the office was able to gather direct evidence about orders issued by moammar qaddafi himself. the evidence shows that qaddafi relied on his inner circle to implement a system atic policy of suppressing any challenge to his authority. >> sreenivasan: the other warrants are for one of qaddafi's sons, seif al-islam gadhafi, and his intelligence chief.
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a bomb blast in southern afghanistan today killed four american troops. the alliance gave no details on the attack. a total of 16 nato soldiers have been killed so far in may. the chinese artist ai weiwei has had his first contact with the outside world after 43 days in detention. his wife met with him sunday. she said he was red-eyed and tense, but that he assured her he was physically fine. ai was detained during a crackdown to prevent protests in the arab world from spilling into china. the foreign ministry says he is being investigated for economic crimes. those are some of the day's major stories. now, back to gwen. >> ifill: an arrest in new york that is sending jolts through the world economy and the politics of france. dominique strauss kahn was being escorted into court before dawn in new york today. he was supposed to be in brussels at a crucial meeting on european debt. >> charged with a criminal.... >> ifill: the director of the international monetary fund looking haggard and unshaven appeared instead before a new
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york state judge in lower manhattan, charged with sexual assault. >> one count of attempted rape in the first degree. one count of sexual abuse in the first degree. >> ifill: it all stems from an alleged encounter on saturday afternoon in a $3,000 a night suite at the hotel in times square. a 32-year-old chamber maid alleged that strauss kahn came out of the bathroom naked and forced himself on her repeatedly. he was arrested later that day, taken off an air france flight minutes before it departed for paris. today defense attorney benjamin brachman argued for his client's release on $1 million bail. >> i also would add for the benefit of the defendant that he denies these charges, that he is presumed innocent under the law something which i did not hear at all coming from the people's position. he is presumed innocent. indeed this is a very defense i believe case. >> ifill: before a packed
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courtroom, judge melissa jackson agreed with prosecutors that strauss kahn, a french national with considerable resources, is a flight risk. >> going to remand the defendant to grand jury action. >> ifill: she ordered him held in custody until a further hearing this friday. strauss kahn had acknowledged adulterous behavior in the past earning a nickname in the french media: the seducer. but his arrest on rape charges sent shock waves through the global financial community. he's led the i.m.f.for nearly four years as the agency provided billions in emergency financing to greece, ireland and portugal. he was to have met today with german chancellor angela merkel whose nation is providing additional financing. in berlin merckel was asked about the politically sensitive topic of replacing strauss kahn. >> emerging countries certainly have a claim to the post of i.m.f.chief as well as
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post of the head of the world bank but i think in the current days in which we have a lot of discussions connected to the euro, there are good reasons for europe to have good candidates available. i repeat it again and i would ask you to note this. this question does not arise today. >> ifill: for now the imf has named an acting director american banker john lipski and in greece which is counting on additional imf help there were mixed emotions about strauss kahn's fate. >> if an entire country is hinged on strauss kahn, it's a pity for greece and all of us. >> i think strauss kahn is a simple worker. someone else will take his place. >> ifill: strauss kahn's arrest also scrambled the presidential field in france where he's been a top socialist party contender to face incumbent president sarkozy next year. a socialist party spokesman urged caution. >> we currently have very partial information, incomplete and with
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contradictory versions. in such a climate, we socialists have to hold fast to our principles. the first of them is to repeat that dominique strauss kahn is presumed innocent. >> ifill: adding to his troubles today a 31-year-old french novelist claimed strauss kahn assaulted her nine years ago. for more now on about who dominique strauss-kahn was and the fallout, we turn to eswar prasad, a former i.m.f. official who's now at cornell university. he's also a senior fellow at the brookings institution. and sophie meunier, a research scholar in the woodrow wilson school of public policy and international affairs at princeton university. she also co-directs the european union program at princeton and has written several books on french politics. how important is dominique strauss-kahn in the scheme of things? >> dominique strauss-kahn is very important because the international monetary fund, the institution that he still heads, is very important. he was very important in making the imf as important as
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it is today. before the global financial crisis when he took office in 2007, the imf was sliding into irrelevance. it's set up to give money to countries that are in trouble. in 2007 the world economy was doing well. the financial crisis hit. the imf... what strauss-kahn did was had a strategy and a grand mission on making the imf a central player in the world financial markets and making the imf a much bigger institution. he did both. he very skillfully strategized, brought the big countries together especially the g-20 economies which includes the u.s., the u.k. and the major emerging market economies. the imf today is a $1 trillion institution. when he took it over it was $250 billion. the imf is at the center of all economic policy debates. so the imf is very important. and as the man at the top, he set the tone for the imf. strauss-kahn plays a very important role. >> ifill: is it fair to say he was central to these euro zone
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bailouts we've been following for the past several years including in greece and in ireland and in portugal? >> much of the work on bailouts and the technical work was really done by the professional staff. that work will happen irrespective of what happens at the leadership but the leadership sets the tones and, for instance, the debt bailout program in greece is not working very well. so the big question is whether to give greece more money or not. under what terms and conditions to give it. and that is an executive decision that has to be taken by somebody at the head of the institution. and this is why strauss-kahn's presence was very important. there was a sense that so long as he was at the helm of the imf, the imf would not turn its back on europe. >> ifill: as important as his presence was on the world stage domestically in france this has had quite the big effect. >> yes. the announcement of the scandal had the effect of a
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bomb on french politics. you have to understand that strauss-kahn is a major figure in french domestic politics right now. until two days he was a shoe-in for winning the primary election in the socialist party which is going to take place this october and was given by opinion polls as the favorite to win the general french presidential election which is going to happen in the spring next year with sarkozy. strauss-kahn has been a major figure in french politics for several decades now. he was initially an economics professor at the university but was a pretty successful minister of the economy in the 1990s with professionalism and competence surrounding him. he ran for the primary of the socialist party last time around, was defeated. his opponent went on to lose the election to sarkozy. what happened is that after sarkozy came into power, he initiated the strategy of
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opening up his cabinet to the other side, transcending political boundaries. and part of the strategy was to get rid of dominique strauss-kahn by shipping him off to the imf and, therefore, making them further away from french domest politics. >> ifill: if he shipped dominique-kahn to get him out of the way politically, did it work? was strauss-kahn no longer popular or well known in france. >> this strategy almost backfired. it worked in the sense that he would have been his most formidable opponent. the socialist party has been quite in disarray. they've lost three consecutive presidential elections. there was no sign of a leader emerging. but with strauss-kahn away, he actually acquired that stature of an international leader, that gravitas.
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at the same time by being away from the petty domestic politics, it made him... it made it more likely that he would be the favorite because he had stayed away from all this. it almost backfired. >> ifill: professor prasad, sophie meunier said it was like a bomb dropping domestically in france. was there a bomb dropped on the markets as well in the wake of this arrest? >> the markets are very nervous because the big issue right now and the meeting that strauss-kahn was going to attend was largely about the greek bailouts but it's not about greece anymore. the real reason why greece needs to be held together is that the problem doesn't affect the rest of europe. there are a lot of vulnerable economies in europe. markets are very concerned right now. the reality is that greece is going to need a restructuring which means that the private bond holders are going to have to take a loss. once that becomes clear, the bond holder is going to get very nervous about the other countries in the euro zone which could have a debt
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crisis. markets are waiting to see how this settles. this big issue at the end of the day is who takes over from strauss-kahn right now? there is a leadership vacuum in the imf. >> ifill: i was very interested in what angela merkel seemed to be hinting at in her remarks there. what was that about? >> the history has been that the imf, the number tw position goes to the u.s. and there are three other deputy managing directors. now we have a very interesting scenario. the number one person of the imf is not functioning. the number two person john lipski appointed by the u.s. in fact announced a couple of weeks ago that he would leave office at the end of august. now the two top positions are in play. there was a general sense among the g-20 economies when they met at the recent summits that it's now the turn of the emerging markets to have somebody at the top. europe is going to say to the u.s. and other emerging market questions, you want us to give up the top position. why don't you the u.s. give up the second position? it will become a very
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complicated political battle. >> ifill: let's talk about that and walk us through what the state is now of the french presidential election. you said he was the shoe-in for the socialist nomination. that is likely not to happen unless unless he is completely exonerated. so how do the other dominos fall? >> well, even if he's exonerated, it will be a little bit too late for him to get into the field. here's the story. the french presidential election is going to be in april. it takes place in two rounds. the socialist party, which is the main opposition party, is going to hold a primary in october with strauss-kahn gone, the socialists are in disarray right now because they have not really made alternative plans. there's going to be a scramble between the man who seems to be the most logical choice to succeed the main contender and
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another man who is is currently the head of the socialist party. we should not forget maybe a couple others. it's interesting for sarkozy what he's going to do for him. you know, in the short term, this seems like heaven sent. this scandal for him. the french have been entirely consumed by the story ever since it broke out on sunday morning. it's great for sarkozy because it provides welcome distraction from domestic policies and what seems to be failed policy. and also because it puts the socialist in disarray. but in the long term or meaning in the perspective of the pl shall election next spring it's not so clear that he's really going to benefit from the scandal. first of all, because it might well be that there's going to be the emergence of a candidate who is going to eat some votes aaway from sarkozy. the election is in two rounds. it used to be that in the
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first round, the french would vote with their heart. but in the second round, they would vote with their heads. that's what is shattered in 2002. well it turns out that they voted so much with their heart that they split their votes among all sorts of candidates on the left which facilitated the emergence of the national far right who made it to the second round. and this may happen again this year where this time the one who might make to it the second round is the daughter of the former candidate with a more modern, younger, more dynamic candidate. >> ifill: no matter how you describe this, it's something that came out of the blue for both the imf and for french politics. thank you both for helping us understand it. >> thank you, gwen. >> a pleasure. >> suarez: next, the united states government hit the end of its credit line today, the legal limit for the amount of money it can borrow.
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for now, treasury officials say they can take other measures to pay the bills. but the ongoing political debate and reaching the milestone raises questions about how the debt ceiling works and what the federal government will do now when it needs cash. to help us explain all of this, we're joined by binyamin appelbaum of the "new york times." i guess the most basic way to start, whether you call it a cap or a limit or a ceiling, dinner time monday may 16, can the federal government borrow money to meet its daily obligation? >> it is out of borrowing room. it's like it hit the limit on its credit cards. yours might be $5,000 but theirs is $14 trillion. we're done. going forward until congress agrees to raise that limit the government needs to pay its bills in other ways. >> suarez: day after day after day the government spends more than it collects in revenues. how come a default doesn't happen right after the ceiling is hit. >> we spend about $120 billion
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more each month than we take in the revenues. that's the amount treasury needs to find somewhere. the government has a bank accountality the federal reserve with a little bit more than $100 billion. it's going to use that money. there are a number of places that we borrow from that we don't do to pay our bills; we do really as a favor. we borrow from local governments. we borrow from the pension plan that serves federal workers. and the government is going to stop doing those things and instead borrow for its general needs. that conserves some room as well. all of these measures last until early august. that's when the government runs out of money even under those extraordinary measures. >> suarez: is that he estimate or is that a hard and fast data. >> an estimate. that's the best guess that the treasury department has of when they'll hit that final cap but it could move a couple weeks either way. >> suarez: could the cap be used as a way of simply limiting federal spending or the way i guess some people would like to see it done uncle sam basically says, well,
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we don't have any more money. we just won't spend any more. >> there are certainly people who would like to try that experiment. there are a lot of very reasonable economists who think it would be roughly the equivalent of chopping off someone's arms and legs because they don't fit in a bed. it would be dramatic, extreme and require massive cuts fairly instantaneously. >> suarez: turning that around then, what are the risks involved in not raising the debt limit? >> what's interesting about this is that really the risks are the same either way. it's a question of how soon they arrive. if we keep raising the debt limit and keep borrowing more and more money, eventually markets will lose confidence in the ability of the federal government to repay those debts and the cost of borrowing starts to increase. if we refuse to raise the debt limit, investors may lose confidence much more quickly and borrowing costs start to increase. but neither extreme works really well for us in the long run. >> suarez: there are roughly 11 weeks until the new august deadline. given how much more money the government needs to operate than it collects, is there a
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danger involved? a danger to the cost of borrowing money that gets greater as you get closer to that deadline? >> there is. it's as if we're walking toward a cliff and we don't know quite where it is. at some point markets could begin to fear that this won't be resolved. it won't be resolved in a timely fashion. if and when that happens, the government starts to pay more money to borrow. that gets very expensive for tax payers very quickly. even a tiny incremental increase in the amount that the government needs to pay to borrow money could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to tax payers. we've seen in past debt crises, in past instances when we've approached this limit that markets have sometimes responded by starting to charge a larger risk premium in order to lend money to the federal government. if that happens now, life becomes more expensive starting whenever that happens. >> suarez: so that nervousness, that insecurity means that people are not willing to lend on favorable terms. >> right now the government borrows more cheaply than anyone else in the world.
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nothing is as sure in financial markets than that the united states government will repay its debt. and so the government gets the cheapest rates available. if people start to doubt that, if lenders start to doubt that the government can repay its debts or will repay its debts, those rates will start to rise. >> suarez: we've been up against this threshold more than 70 times before. how come this time feels different from some of those other ones that were just settled with a pro form a vote? >> i'm not sure how much different this time is. we've certainly been through this process before of seeing one party in congress and the other party in the white house sort of warring over the terms of an increase in the debt ceiling. we saw it in the reagan administration, the bush administration, the clinton administration. what sets this apart a little bit is that the size of the debt keeps getting birg bigger and bigger and bigger and so the consequences of playing this game become larger and the wiggle room gets smaller because all of these emergency measures that we're now taking which useded to buy months and months of additional time now
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buy just a couple months. >> suarez: on one side of the argument people from the administration are promising calamity if august 2 comes and goes with no settlement for this. while some on the other side are saying, well, it's a detail. we'll miss a couple of payments for a couple of days or a couple of weeks but then eventually this will get settled. is the truth somewhere in the middle? >> we don't know. you know, i think robert rubin, the former treasury secretary said it best. he said we don't know what will happen. why would you want to find out? that seems to be, you know, a perspective that certainly all of our former treasury secretaries have. you're wandering off into an unknown space. there is no telling how markets would respond if the government stops paying some of its bills. some people are willing to run that experiment. others fear it greatly and don't want to. but we really won't know until if and when we get there. >> suarez: quickly before we
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go, what's the latest reports from the battle front? are the two sides under the guidance of joe biden reporting much progress in crafting a deal that will both cut expenditures and raise the debt ceiling? >> no, but that's not surprising. this is washington. if this happens, it will probably happen in early august. >> suarez: benjamin applebaum, thanks for joining us. >> thank you. >> ifill: 50 years ago this month, a group of young men and women boarded commercial buses in washington, d.c., headed for the deep south. the 13 members of the congress of racial equality, or core, led by james farmer, planned a deliberate but nonviolent challenge to the jim crow laws in southern states. from may until november, 1961, hundreds of americans, black and white, risked their lives. some were brutally beaten, and all faced imprisonment. tonight "american experience" on
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pbs will air "freedom riders," a documentary of those pivotal six months in the history of the civil rights movement. the following excerpt picks up the story when a group gets off a greyhound bus in montgomery, alabama. >> the mob came out and went straight to the reporters. and started beating them and kicking them and throwing their cameras down, smashing them on the ground. >> after we were forced away, that's when the attack on the riders themselves started. >> it just seemed like suddenly... like the bus was like surrounded. >> you could see baseball bats and pieces of pipe and hammers and chains. one fellow had a pitch fork. >> it was like a feeding frenzy like sharks. they were just crazy. >> and what really sticks with me were the women.
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they were screaming, "kill them niggers." and they had babies in their arms. >> getting this in realtime as it's happening from his own lieutenant saying something to the effect it's terrible. it's terrible. just watching it happen. no police. they're just beating them. >> this was war. on the greyhound bus terminal parking lot. this was absolute war. >> i asked god to be with me, to give me the strength i would need to remain nonviolent and to forgive them. >> the last thing i recall standing with jim, i was hit in the head with a wooden crate. i heard a crack and fell forward. i rolled over on my back and a foot came down in my face. that was it. i was out.
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>> william was knocked down a big 250-pound white guy had his foot on his neck while another one was trying to drive a steel rod through his ear. >> the police were standing there. in their uniforms. just looking. they provided no protection for those students. >> there is a skinny young kid. he was sort of dancing in front of this young woman punching her. i could see as she turned her head, blood from the nose and mouth. >> i grabbed her by the wrist over the hood of the car, had her right at the door. she put her hands up on the doorjambb and said, "mister, i don't want you to get hurt. i'm nonviolent. i'm trained to take this. please, don't get hurt. we'll be fine." i said, "get your ass in the
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car, sister." and at that moment they wheeled me around and they hit me with a pipe. they kicked me under the car and left me there. >> reporter: there were from 300 to 1,000 whites in the area. before police finally broke up the crowd with tear gas they beat and injured at least 20 persons of both races and both sexes. >> after the montgomery riots the kennedys were feeling betrayed. there's there he was lying in a pool of his own blood. they realize they're going to have to bring in federal marshals. >> reporter: the justice department says 400 united states marshals will be in montgomery tomorrow. they're being assembled from other southern states now and court orders are being prepared to enable them to keep armed order if >> suarez: again, the full "freedom riders" documentary will air on american experience tonight on most pbs stations. judy woodruff picks up the story
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from here. >> woodruff: the majority of the freedom riders were black and white college students. earlier this month 40 current college students from around the country picked from thousands of applicants participated in a pbs-sponsored re-enactment of the freedom ride. they join some of the original 1961 riders to make the trip from washington d.c. to new orleans. it was an opportunity to reflect on the risks and sacrifices inherent in the fight for social change, whether 50 years ago or today. before their departure, i talkd with two of them. democratic congressman john lewis from georgia, one of the original 13 riders. he was severely beaten a montgomery, alabama. and charles read from jersey city, new jersey. a graduating senior at the university of mary washington
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in fredricks burg, virginia. he is one of the student riders. i asked them why it's important to remember the rides a half century later. >> i had never heard of the freedom riders before attending university of mary washington in which i took a freshman seminar course about the legacy of james farmer. that is is what really drove me to the freedom ride. i think it's so important that we now have this opportunity to give some acknowledgment to such an historic event in american history where we have these courageous people who were inter-generational, inter-racial, and both male and female that were getting on the bus saying that we want to end segregation throughout the south. when it comes to inter-state bus travel. >> woodruff: congressman lewis, not everybody in the civil rights movement then thought the freedom rides were the right thing to do. why did you think they should go ahead? >> growing up in rural alabama,
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travelin on a greyhound bus or a trail way bus over and over again to alabama, tennessee to school, i'd seen those signs that side white waiting, colored waiting. white men, colored men. white women, colored women. i wanted to play a role to help to bring those signs down and end segregation and racial discrimination in public transportation. i felt like i had to be on a bus. i was a studentent. i was 21 years old. getting ready to graduate. and i came to washington d.c. on may 1 for training and orientation. then on the night of may 3 as a group, there were 13 of us, we went down to a little chinese restaurant some place in washington for a meal.
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growing up in rural alabama, attending school in tennessee. i never had chinese food before. it was a wonderful meal, a delicious meal. but someone said that night you should eat well. this may be like the last supper. >> woodruff: were you aware of the disagreement inside the civil rights movement about whether this was the right thing to do at the time? >> i was very much aware that some people had some questions about whether we should be traveling as an inter-racial group through the south. we could set the movement back. but we could not allow the possibility for violence in a nonviolent movement. >> woodruff: charles, what did you learn about the freedom rides? what did you learn and what surprised you about it all? >> this was a nonviolent movement. yet there was so much harsh,
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perilous discrimination against african-americans while they were traveling throughout the south while being attacked by mobs. that was what was most shocking to me because you have these people, innocent americans, who are fighting for rights that are due to them. they're being attacked by these antagonists throughout the entire ride. that was one of the most profound things that i learned about the freedom rides. >> there comes a time when you believe in something that is so, so good and so necessary that you're prepared to stand up and be willing to die for it. it's just a matter of finding a way or making a way out of no way. >> woodruff: charles, how difficult is it for you to imagine what they went through?
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>> it is extremely difficult to imagine what they went through. i think that their effort and their heroism of getting on the bus back in 1961, knowing that they were facing death was something that was truly admirable. they knew it was the right thing to do. it was the just thing to do. you lose yourself in that moment where you say, i don't want to face this type of racial humiliation anymore. i want to put an end to this. >> woodruff: congressman lewis, dr. martin luther king, jr., decided not to participate in the rides. why did he decide not to? and what effect did that have on the movement? >> the decision that dr. martin luther king jr. made was his decision. it's in keeping with the movement. it was in keeping then. we all must decide for ourselves.
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what we can do and what we cannot do. dr. king had something in atlanta. he didn't want to violate his probation. on the other hand from the freedom riders said to him we were we are all on probation. we've all been arrested and jailed but we're going to do it. many of the freedom riders were very disappointed that dr. king didn't board the bus in atlanta, after the violence in montgomery and made a decision to continue to ride that he did join us. a great theme in montgomery that we continued to ride with dr. king shaking the hand of one of the freedom riders with his arm hanging out of the window, the freedom riders. dr. king just was shaking his hand as the bus is pulling off.
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>> woodruff: going forward, did it weaken the movement? did it strengthen the movement? what do you say? >> the freedom ride, the drama of the freedom ride strengthened the movement. it took the movement out of the urban centers off the college campuses into some small town, into areas. it was a movement on wheels. even after we had been beaten and mobbed in montgomery, after a church was almost bombed and almost burned down, we didn't give up. we kept the faith. we kept our eyes on the prize. and the freedom ride led to the desegregation of public transportation all across the south. >> woodruff: as a young person today, what does what they did mean to you? >> i realize that their efforts paved the way for many of the opportunities that i have today. to attend college of my choice.
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to get on a bus and ride through the south and sit anywhere that i please. if you are engaged and really motivated to make something happen or make change happen, you can really do it. >> woodruff: hearing those words must mean something to you. >> hearing those words from this young man mean a great deal. it demonstrates that what we're all trying to do, black and white, young and old, men and women, help inspire you and other young people like you to get out there and continue what we started. >> and to add to that, i was just going to say that it's so powerful how the freedom rides put forth the philosophy that if you're a mail or female, black or white, young or old,
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we're all people of the human race. we all should be treated equally. that right there is very, very important. >> we're one family. we're one people. we're one house. we're one community. that's what the freedom ride was all about. that we're all in the same boat. >> exactly. >> woodruff: on that note, we thank you both for talking with us. congressman john lewis, charles reed, we thank you. >> thank you. >> thank you, thank you. >> ifill: finally tonight, as the "endeavour" rockets into space, a poet here on earth explores the cosmos through words. she's tracy k. smith, a creative writing professor at princeton university. her recely released third book, "life on mars," reflects on the relationship between our lives and the universe. we sat down with smith recently at her home in brooklyn.
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>> i grew up in northern california in a town called fairfield, which is kind of exactly between san francisco and sacramento. a small suburb. i'm the youngest of five children. the last section of the poem is directly about my father. it begins when my father worked on the hubble space telescope. it really was my attempt or the opportunity that i took to go backwards and think about that moment in our family when my father was still this all powerful figure who would live forever. the questions that were being asked not only by the scientists and engineers but also the children. i remember the pride with which he opened this volume of these first amazing photos that showed us things that we had only imagined in fictional terms before. so much of my poetry begins with something that i can describe in visual terms so
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thinking about distance, thinking about how life begins and what might be watching us. my father spent whole seasons bowing before the oracle eye, hungry for what it would find. his face lit up whenever anyone asked. and his arms would rise as if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-end night of space. on the ground we tied postcards to balloons for peace. prince charles married lady di. rock hudson died. we learned new words for things. the decade changed. the first few pictures came back blurred, and i felt ashamed for all the cheerful engineers my father and his tribe. the second time the optics jibed. we saw to the edge of all there is, so brutal and alive.
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it seemed to comprehend us back. i didn't think i was setting out to write a book about god and about death and about the finite nature of our lives but those are the questions that were really on the surface for me. for me a poem is an opportunity to kind of interrogate myself a little bit and see if what ways i'm complicated by situations like that. or even, i don't know, like somehow connecteded to in ways that might be uncomfortable. "we are a part of it. not guests. is "it" us or what contains us? how can "it" be anything but an idea, something teetering on the spine of the number "i." "it" is elegant but coy. it avoids the blunt ends of our fingers as we point. we have gone looking for "it" everywhere, in bible, in band width, blooming like a womb
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from the ocean floor. still "it" resists the matter of false versus real. unconvinced by our zeal "it" is unapieceable. it is like some novel, an unreadable. the other thing that was happening during the time i was writing this book was i became pregnant with my daughter. that was another big "it" that in some ways i was really grateful for because it gave me a sense that not only is there this ever-after that our loved ones disappear into but there's some source that might be generating other people, other, you know, love. son... so it was a beautiful kind of thing that i was able to write into a little bit. >> suarez: you can watch more of our interview with tracy smith and see her read other poems on our website.
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>> ifill: again, the major developments of the day. communities in louisiana's cajun country emptied, as water from the mississippi river poured across the countryside. and the head of the international monetary fund, dominique strauss-kahn, was denied bail in new york, after being charged with rape. and to hari sreenivasan, for what's on the newshour online. hari? >> sreenivasan: there's more on the 50th anniversary of the freedom riders, including interviews with two of the participants. and more on the politics of the debt limit from gwen and political editor david chalian on this week's political checklist. plus, watch the launch of space shuttle "endeavour." and you can still submit questions for our live interview with the crew, part of a collaboration with google and youtube. all that and more is on our web site, ray? >> suarez: and that's the newshour for tonight. on tuesday, we'll have the first of margaret warner's reports from oil-rich bahrain, a look at the crackdown on protesters. i'm ray suarez. >> ifill: and i'm gwen ifill. we'll see you online, and again here tomorrow evenin thank you, and good night. major funding for the pbs newshour has been provided by:
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