'Tell Me' Awards Honor Year's Political Stars, Gaffes

In this week's Political Chat roundtable, host Michel Martin looks back on the year that was, in politics. She reviews the highlights of 2010 in the form of a "political awards show" with Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for the US News and World Report and Cynthia Tucker, columnist and blogger with the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's Friday, meaning our Friday features, and on the last Friday of the year that means a special Barbershop. The guys are in the house.

First though, our weekly political chat, and this week as we put a bow on 2010, we're going to take a look back at some of the stories that made us laugh, cry, scratch our heads and maybe even scream at the television.

And while most politicos have already compiled their best of and worst of lists of 2010, you know that we here at TELL ME MORE like to do things a little differently. That's why we've decided to have our own political awards, the Tell Me Awards, black tie optional.

MARTIN: Best New Artist, Best Male Pop Vocal, even Best Comedy Album. Choosing from some of the people events and themes that might not have made the front pages, but still have had an impact on the world we are living in today.

So without further ado, let's introduce our crack team. Joining us, as she does most Fridays, Cynthia Tucker. She's a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

And coming to us to from member station KCPW in Salt Lake City is Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, and a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

Welcome back to you both, and happy New Year to you both.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Happy New Year, Michel and Mary Kate.

MARY KATE CARY: Happy New Year, Cynthia and Michel.

MARTIN: Our first category is Best Female Pop Vocal, and we are giving this award to women who, through speech or action, have marked a key political moment. Cynthia, I'm going to get your choice first, and we have a little clip of tape to give us all a hint. Here it is.

LISA MURKOWSKI: My heart is Alaska, and I cannot leave you. I cannot stop what we have started.

MARTIN: Well, I know that's not Sarah Palin.

TUCKER: No, it isn't. That is Lisa Murkowski who was dumped by her old record label, the Republican Party, but proved that she still had a huge following, a lot of fan support as it were. She ran a write-in campaign, and was elected senator from Alaska again. So she is once again a rising star.

MARTIN: Once again, all of that in one package. How about that? I wonder when is the last time that happened that a Senate seat was defended by a write-in campaign.

TUCKER: It had been years and years, and it's very unusual to have that done.

MARTIN: Yeah. I can see it in a small area, but in a large geographic district and a state-wide race, very unusual.

So, Mary Kate, let's listen to your choice for Best Female Pop Vocal. Here's a hint.

NANCY PELOSI: But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.

MARTIN: How's that again? Mary Kate?

KATE CARY: Well, the envelope please. The winner is Nancy Pelosi. She said that in March, right before the vote for the healthcare reform bill. And by saying you have to pass the bill so that we can learn what's in the bill, she fed the narrative that the Democratic leadership was pushing this thing through without having read it. And not a single Republican voted for it. And it fed that sort of out-of-touch, back room image of the Democrats that led to their historic losses in November.

Her statement there to me summed up so much of what was going on with the healthcare reform bill and why voters were so dissatisfied this year.

MARTIN: And those remarks, incidentally, were to the legislative conference of the National Association of Counties, and as you pointed out, that comment was picked up by many media outlets.

So Mary Kate, what about our next category, Best Male Pop Vocal? And we have a little clip to set up your winner. Let's play it.

KATE CARY: OK.

GEORGE W: Can you remember the last day you didn't have a drink, Laura asked. She wasn't threatening or nagging. She did expect an answer.

MARTIN: Now, that's a voice that I think most of us know.

KATE CARY: You know that voice?

TUCKER: I think I know that voice.

MARTIN: This Tell Me goes to former President George W. Bush, and Mary Kate, why did you choose him for your award winner?

KATE CARY: Well, he has sold two million copies of his book "Decision Points." That's from the - I assume that's from the audio version of it. Since November...

MARTIN: No. He read to it me personally, just because we're close that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He wanted to make sure I enjoyed it so, yes. It's from the audio book, yes.

KATE CARY: That's the opening line there, can you remember the last day you didn't have a drink. And, you know, I've been involved with a number of political memoirs over the years, and that has got to be the most stunning opening to a presidential memoir I've ever seen. Like I was saying, he sold two million copies since November, which is more than Bill Clinton sold for his book called "My Life" in all six years that's it been out.

What's interesting it's thematic and not chronological. Bill Clinton's was chronological, and so that came across as sort of rambling as a result. George W. Bush's is much more sort of concise and well edited.

In the big picture though, that book is becoming sort of a metaphor to me also for one of the biggest stories of the last two years which is that we still have people talking about the Bush tax cuts, Guantanamo Bay, the two wars that he started, post-9/11 security measures. They're all pretty much still in place. And it's all becoming part of him securing his place in history, and I think it's fascinating to watch.

MARTIN: OK, Cynthia. Let's hear a little something from your choice for Best Male Pop Vocal.

HARRY REID: In this Congress, I repeat, Republicans have waged 87 filibusters. They've used every procedural trick in the book. We have been able to work through most of them, and have what in the name of - in the mind of Norm Ornstein, the most successful Congress watcher in decades said, the most successful productive Congress in history of the country.

MARTIN: Now, that's of course Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaking on the Senate floor on December 15. His reference to Norm Ornstein, by the way, is to a Congress watcher from the American Enterprise Institute who is somebody highly sought after for his observations in the media.

So Cynthia, tell me why your Tell Me award goes to Senator Reid.

TUCKER: I thought Harry Reid deserved this one for leading a motley and dissonant band of Senators to sing a collection of end-of-year hits. There was a tax cut deal which gives the wealthy a continuation of - gives everybody a continuation of the Bush tax cuts.

But it also includes what many are calling a second stimulus that President Obama probably could not have gotten outside this tax cut deal. There was a historic repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" which came through the Senate. The passage of the New START treaty, which was in doubt as recently as the beginning of December, and even landmark food safety legislation which got not as much attention as I think it deserved.

And Harry Reid is not a man with a lot of obvious political gifts. In fact, when he was - when his colleagues in the Democratic - Democrats in the Senate chose him as Senate majority leader a lot of people wondered why. Well, the simple fact of the matter is...

MARTIN: No. They were Harry who?

TUCKER: Exactly.

MARTIN: They were Harry who.

TUCKER: He knows Senate procedures, and he knows how to count votes, and he knows how to get his colleagues to go along with him, and so I give him a lot of credit with this very successful Congress.

MARTIN: He has a very interesting back story, I must tell you that. I read a profile of him in The New Yorker earlier this year, and I was floored. I mean, he has this very difficult, you know, upbringing, you know, a very kind of a childhood that a lot of people would characterize as marked by abuse, and here is a guy who grew up and became this central figure in American politics. It's very interesting.

TUCKER: It's an all-American story. He grew up desperately poor. He is also, by the way, Mormon, which he doesn't talk about a lot.

KATE CARY: I didn't know that. I'm in the Mormon capital of the world here and...

TUCKER: Yes, he is.

MARTIN: He's a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS is a preferred term for...

KATE CARY: Which I see out the window of the studio here.

MARTIN: Yeah. Very good. Now, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report.

We're recapping some of the year's political stories, movers and shakers that we feel are worth - or rather that they feel are worth mentioning. They're giving the Tell Me Awards to the people who really impress them over the course of the year. And this is the - I think the best opportunity to give our Rising Star Award. Best New Artist Award.

Cynthia, who is your Tell Me going to? I think Mary Kate, you already told us, right? Or you...

KATE CARY: No. No. We're holding the audience in suspense.

MARTIN: We're holding the audience in suspense, okay. Who does your Rising Star Award to?

TUCKER: My Best New Artist Award goes to the attorney general-elect of California, Kamala Harris. Now, you talk about an interesting back story. She is often called the female Barack Obama because she has - she is very bright, she is very accomplished, and she also has a very interesting racial heritage.

Her father was an immigrant from Jamaica. Her mother was an immigrant from India. So she's a woman of color, she's often spoken of as African-American, often spoken of as Asian-American. She's both, but again, the All-American story. She is the first female attorney general in California, and what is most interesting, I think, is that she is(ph) anti-death penalty.

You find very few top cops in any state who oppose the death penalty, and her Republican opponent really bashed her in the campaign for refusing to seek the death penalty against a cop killer. But she won anyway, and she's going to be a rising star to watch in Democratic circles in years to come.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, what about you? Who are you choosing as Best New Artist?

KATE CARY: My winner is Nikki Haley, the first female governor of South Carolina, and the first Indian-American woman elected governor anywhere in the United States.

South Carolina is not known for electing women to anything, so this is a big deal that she won. In her - as we would say in the music industry, in her debut album, her debut hit was - there was a post-election meeting in Washington of the president and the Cabinet and all the incoming newly elected governors, and she got the president to agree to consider at least situations in which states could opt out of healthcare reform.

South Carolina she says cannot afford the mandate, and I think that's true in a lot of states. And so he outlined the conditions under which he would be willing to consider this, and it was a big story that the press missed, because they were all focused - the same week was the Virginia lawsuit and the pending arguments in the Florida lawsuit where all the states would try to get out of healthcare reform.

My feeling is a state-by-state solution could be a much better answer, as she's proposing, instead of more lawsuits or outright repeal in Congress, and maybe we're looking at a new model for healthcare reform this year. And it's all because she had the gumption to stand up and say something.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) great. We need to take a short break. But when we come back, we will continue with our awards presentation, the Tell Me Awards, as judged by US News and World Report columnist and blogger Mary Kate Cary, and Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist and blogger Cynthia Tucker.

Still remaining, the big ones, Lifetime Achievement and Best Comedy Album, so please state with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, should the Swahili be taken out of Kwanzaa? A linguist and frequent contributor to this program makes the argument that the holiday that celebrates African-American heritage should lose the Swahili. That's coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, back to our political chat and the first-ever Tell Me Awards, wrapping up the political stories of the year. Our judges are Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, and a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

Also with us, Cynthia Tucker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Before the break we talked about Best New Artist and Best Male and Female Vocalists that, you know, made a splash in politics. Now a big one - Lifetime Achievement Award. We're handing this award out to somebody who has an establish political career and has proven himself or herself to be a survivor.

Cynthia, we've got a clip of tape from your first choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY BROWN: So it's look we're - I'm going back again. Now, as you know, I've got the know-how and the experience, and this time, of course, we have a first lady, which we didn't have last time, and I think that's going to be - that's going to be the real difference.

MARTIN: That is news to me. Of course, Cynthia, your choice is?

TUCKER: Governor Moonbeam, Jerry Brown. Governor-elect of California. Who would have thought it. I have to tell you, when I first heard a year or so back that he was going to make the run for governor of California, I couldn't believe it. I thought: who takes this guy seriously? Once upon a time he was one of the youngest people to ever serve as governor, because he was governor of California when I was in college. He has run for many political offices, lost many, but he's also won several. He's been mayor of Oakland, he has been attorney general of California, and lo and behold he beat an extremely well- financed, self-financed candidate, Meg Whitman, to reclaim the governorship of California.

MARTIN: Well, Mary Kate, who are you giving the Lifetime Tell Me Award to?

KATE CARY: Mine is a previous winner, I think under Cynthia's for Best Female Vocalist, so we have a double nominee of Lisa Murkowski. I think she had an interesting life story. She was first appointed to the Senate by her father, the governor, Frank Murkowski, which was the way - back in the day, that's how women got into the Senate, was by getting appointed.

And since then, obviously she's done this phenomenally successful write-in campaign, broke all the records, and is really becoming sort of the anti-Sarah Palin, the voice of independents who are not necessarily enthralled with the Tea Party. And since the election she has cast four major votes all with the Democrats.

So as a result, Politico now at the end of the year is predicting she could become one of the most powerful moderates in the Senate, which is going to be pretty evenly divided now.

So I think she's got a great life story, and she's going places.

MARTIN: It's surprising that Alaska has produced these towering national figures, so that's an interesting story to watch.

Okay. So to put a bow on this, Best Comedy Album. Cynthia, shall we - give us - give the people a hint.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

CHRISTINE O: I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you.

TUCKER: Well, any of the listeners who have paid attention to any comedy shows over the last several months know, of course, that that is Christine O'Donnell, a Tea Party favorite and Senate candidate from Delaware.

And in fact, Christine O'Donnell beat out for the Republican nomination a very strong moderate named Mike Castle. Had Mike Castle won the Republican nomination, that Senate seat probably would have gone to him.

But Christine O'Donnell, with strong Tea Party backing, won, and her campaign was one gaffe after another. She said a lot of things during the course of the campaign that just weren't true, and she gave both comedy writers and columnists like myself a lot of fodder during her campaign.

MARTIN: And now I think we should mention that O'Donnell is now being investigated by authorities for allegedly misusing campaign funds, and she says that this is based on unsubstantiated allegations and rumors, and she says, you know...

TUCKER: And that's what she always said. That was always her excuse, somebody was out to get her.

MARTIN: Okay. And finally, Mary Kate's selection for Best Comedy Album, coming to us also from the East - one of my favorite all-time moments of the year. I could just play this over and over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Just over and over, and I think I will just whenever I'm feeling down. Here it is.

JIMMY MCMILLAN: I represent the Rent Is Too Damn High Party. People working eight hours a day and 40 hours a week and some a third job. Women can't afford to take care of their children, feed their children breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My main job is to provide a roof over your head, food on the table, and money in your pocket. This is politics as usual, playing a silly game. It's not going to happen. The rent too damn high movement, the people I'm here to represent can't afford to pay their rent.

MARTIN: Can't afford to pay their rent, you hear that? Now, for those who don't know him, this is Jimmy McMillan. He was a candidate for governor of New York. And Mary Kate, tell me why he's your selection of the year. Like as if we need - as if we...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KATE CARY: Yeah. The story stands on its own, I think, the quote does. Whether it was education or the economy, or any other issue with the state, the answer is always the rent is too damn high. Those of us who live in Washington identify with this. It came out this week that Washington now has the third highest rents in the country, and on a more serious note, the reason for that is because of the foreclosure crisis, which is one of the biggest stories of the year as well.

But on the humorous side, he just brought a breath of fresh air to politics. He had these black gloves he would wear. He had this very elaborate mustache, and the rumor I heard this week is he's thinking about running for president, which I think is great news for everybody. The rent is too damn high.

(Soundbite of laughter).

MARTIN: The rent is just too damn high.

KATE CARY: And he beat out, by the way, Vice President Biden for saying that the healthcare reform bill was a big effing deal in the live mic - do you remember that one? One of many Bidenisms over the year.

MARTIN: Yes. You're right. He was a close runner-up for...

KATE CARY: He was a close - and then third place was Jack Conway for accusing Rand Paul of bowing down before the Aqua Buddha. That was also a great one.

MARTIN: That was a great one.

KATE CARY: Lots of fun this year.

MARTIN: Yeah. It was a good year. It was a good - so I want to, before I let you go, ladies, I want to thank you. Of course, this is our last political chat of this year, and I want to thank you both for being with us to talk about so many important issues and to really bring insight and common sense discussion.

Mary Kate Cary is a former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush. She's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

Cynthia Tucker is a columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Ladies, thank you so much for being a part of the Tell Me Awards, and hopefully next year a red carpet pre-show.

KATE CARY: Oh, there we go.

TUCKER: And an after-party.

MARTIN: An after-party, of course. Happy New Year to you both.

TUCKER: Happy New Year.

KATE CARY: Thanks. Happy New Year. It's been a great year, Cynthia and Michel...

TUCKER: It has been.

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