Shop Talk: Hip Hop Mogul Diddy Critical of Obama

President Obama's response to the uprising in Egypt, Puff Daddy's assessment of President Obama and Sunday's Super Bowl are the topics under discussion in this week's installment of "The Barbershop". Host Michel Martin speaks with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated Reporter Pablo Torre and Politico's White House Bureau Chief, Joe Williams.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in their chairs for a shapeup this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre and the White House editor for Politico, Joseph Williams. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How are we doing?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): Yo.

Mr. JOSEPH WILLIAMS (Editor, Politico): Doing all right, man. How are you?

Mr. IZRAEL: Joe dubs. First time in.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes sir.

Mr. IZRAEL: Welcome, man. Welcome.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Glad to be here.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right, well, let's get things started with the topic that's dominated the news all week: the uprising in Egypt. Now, we've seen 11 straight days of massive demonstration with Egyptians taking to the streets and the protests were largely peaceful until yesterday, when supporters of President Mubarak attacked anti-government protestors in Cairo and Alexandria. We've been watching some of that footage on TV and online, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, it's been a very, I think, interesting and inspiring week for a lot of people, but it's also obviously a very, very tricky diplomatic situation, not just for the United States, but for, you know, many countries around the world.

But obviously President Obama is in a particularly difficult situation. This is what he said on Tuesday after speaking with Mubarak directly.

President BARACK OBAMA: Egypt has known many moments of transformation. The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments. This is one of those times. Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt's leaders - only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.

Mr. IZRAEL: OK.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because, obviously, the president, he's catching it, I think, from both left and right on this. I mean, many people think he really needs to be doing more to stand up visibly and support these protestors who want - only want what we have, which is democracy.

On the other hand, there are obviously people raising concerns about what instability means and whether this could usher in a more, you know, extremist, you know, Islamist element, which would then threaten Israel and so forth. So it's a tricky moment.

So, Arsalan, obviously, we're interested in what you have to say about this, as a long-time watcher of the politics of the region.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, President John F. Kennedy once said that those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent retribution inevitable. You know, I have a few friends who are in Tahrir Square, or Liberation Square, the main square in Cairo and, you know, a lot of them want the world to know that Hosni Mubarak has been in power - his tenure is second only to that of Muhammad Ali Pasha and Pharaoh Ramses II. So, you know, when you've been there almost as long as a pharaoh, you know you've been there too long.

This is a guy who has essentially placed a state of emergency for the last 30 years. He runs these sham elections where he wins 90 to 95 percent of the vote. I can't win 95 percent of the vote in my own house. You know, he operates a police state with an iron fist. His intelligence system, the Mukhabarat, basically are what we outsourced our torture program to after 9/11.

And the funniest thing for me is most recently, to show how much of a political megalomaniac he is, the state-run Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, in September 2010, there was a photograph of the White House with President Obama, Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, King Hussein of Jordan, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. And the state newspaper actually Photoshopped and doctored the picture to place Hosni Mubarak leading all four of those world leaders.

So, you know, this is somebody who has been...

Mr. TORRE: Kim Jong Il (unintelligible).

MARTIN: OK. We get that, Arsalan. But the fact is liberals are the very people who criticized George W. Bush for trying to nation-build in Iraq and impose a democratic construct on Iraq. So, tell us what's the difference here.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, the difference is they chose the duplicity in our American foreign policy where we are essentially saying, you know, we're for freedom and democracy in places that we invade, but in terms of a soft dictator that we've tacitly supported for 30 years, you know, we might turn a little blind eye to the freedom of democracy struggle of 80 million people in the largest Arab nation in the world.

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. WILLIAMS: This is Joe stepping in.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, Joe.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Hey guys. Well, one of the things I did, you know, I hate to like rise in defense of a dictator, and this is not exactly what that is, but certainly, you know, there is an element of why the United States has been kind of slow to throw Hosni Mubarak out with the rest of the crowd and let them tear him limb from limb. I mean he is a brutal dictator. He is cruel. He has repressed his people for some time. That being said, he has helped the U.S. in a couple of strategic ways. And I think this is one of the reasons why President Obama is kind of catching it from both sides, because he has helped keep a lid on tensions in the region. He has acted as an active broker to keep Israel placated. He's honored the peace accord that Anwar Sadat signed back in the '80s to keep peace with Israel, and that's no small thing.

And that's I think one of the reasons why it's very difficult and very delicate for the White House to try to operate here because they've got such a very small box to work within, because you've got all these things and you also got, I mean America has been friends with a lot of despots in a lot of years in a lot of places and they still are. And to see Mubarak get shoved towards the door by an American president, that's going to give rise to some questions to some other people who probably should go but who do have the United States' interest in their portfolio while they're still in office. It's a very strange situation.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think?

Mr. IZRAEL: This really highlights some political chops that people say Obama was light and early, when he was running and yeah, I mean clearly, I mean he said, you know, he's been quoted as saying this caught him by surprise. It's like well, bro, seriously? You know, I mean this should have been something you had your finger on the pulse on like from go. You know, so I mean my question is with that having been said, you know, there are no great options here. You know, you don't want to be the global cop, you know, running in with your cape and cowl trying to solve this problem. By the same token, you don't want to be sitting back tapping your watch, you know, and waiting to see how it's going to play out. You got to do something but...

Mr. WILLIAMS: You should have intel about the neighborhood.

MARTIN: Well...

Mr. IZRAEL: This is what I'm trying to tell you.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: And people early on said Obama was light, you know, in his foreign policy and, you know, the proof is in the pudding is in the taster, obviously.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know if I buy that he was surprised. I mean I just what is he supposed to say? I mean if does - if he says he wasn't surprised it implies he has spies on the ground. I don't know that that's - I just think that that's one of those things that people say at a time like this. Anyway, Pablo what do you want, you want to weigh in on this before we move on?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. Just real quick, I mean, I think, you know, I agree, you know, with the fact that this is so difficult and there's a difference, I think, for me in terms of what Obama's public messaging should've been at least to the world, which is there's obviously this principled stand, standing up for democracy, as Arsalan said, against a dictator, but also this practical consideration, this realpolitik aspect to it. And so for me, I don't necessarily have a problem with them having waited a little bit to sort of see how things go.

Obviously, there's a specter of Jimmy Carter and Iran and what he did there in terms of, you know, switching up and sort of waiting a little too long, but I think Obama was right necessarily. He was probably right in terms of waiting to see how things develop because Egypt is this giant cultural and sociopolitical domino in terms of Israel and just the region in general, that I don't necessarily have a problem with him not rushing to things and making this grand declaration. I think him waiting is probably a good idea.

MARTIN: Arsalan, wants to tie a bow on it before we move on.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: The bow is this: To the rest of the world this basically says that if you're a dictator, as long as your our dictator, we're going to turn a blind eye to what you are doing to your people.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I think that that's probably true in the large picture. But in the small picture, I do think that they are trying to put pressure on him because it does look really bad when riots erupt in the streets and the U.S. is standing on the sidelines trying to figure out what to do. I mean that's not a place that any president really wants to be.

MARTIN: I mean are you saying, Arsalan, that the president should be indifferent to U.S. interests and that of other allies in the region like Israel? He should ignore all that?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Not at all. But what I'm saying is, you know, asking a dictator to conduct political reforms is like asking a duck to stop quacking.

MARTIN: So what should he do, send a helicopter and bring into the Ritz Carlton? What are you saying? I mean, what?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No. No. I mean he should say that he supports the aspirations of the people of Egypt. You know, essentially we're cherry-picking on the freedom and democracy tagline that we purport all around the world and it shows our duplicity in our foreign policy.

MARTIN: All right. Well, to be continued. I'm sure we'll be talking about this next week as well.

If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And we're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. We're talking with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre and Politico's White House bureau chief, Joe Williams.

Back to you Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Moving right along to Sean Combs, who some of you may know as Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy, Diddy or Mr. take that, take that, take that. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Whatever you want to call him these days, he thinks he invented the remix, but he's really the hip-hop mogul and business dude of maybe my generation. Anyway, he's been quoting some headlines for being critical of the president saying, I just want to see the president do better. Yeah, right, Michel.

MARTIN: Clutch the pearls. Clutch the pearls. Well, you know, this is the, it's kind of - it's one of those things where it's kind of in dispute like what he said and what he meant. I mean he was quoted in the hip-hop magazine, The Source, saying I'd rather have a black president that was man enough to say that he was doing something for black people, have one term, than a president who played the politics game have two terms. Then it was picked up by other outlets like, Fox News and Politico.

Now he's saying that this was taken out of context because he was mostly supportive of the president. But, I don't know. I think it's interesting. So Joe, you're the White House bureau chief for Politico. What do you make of this? I think it is sort of reflective of the ambivalence that a lot of other liberals have about the president. What do you think?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, yeah. I mean it's reflective of a general ambivalence out there. Just one thought that occurs to mind right away is like the day I take political advice from Sean Combs is the day he comes to me looking for advice on a hit record. I mean...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. WILLIAMS: ...you know, he's got some expertise in theory and he's sort of representative of the hip-hop culture of the man on the street, and I totally get what he's saying. But I also think that in my world, you know, you have to think about political reaction. I mean if he is a great one-term president who goes, you know, all out, five year, you know, five speeds for reform for African-American agenda, he is definitely going to be a one-term president. And the person who follows him is probably going to get, you know, the reins of power and pushed back so far in the opposite direction that it's not even going to be funny. I mean we're probably - we're having, you know, a George Bush following of Bill Clinton, you know, for lack of a better analogy.

I mean I think that he's on to something and I think that he is generating a lot of the feeling, but I think that it's politically impossible to come up with a black agenda unless you're, you know, unless you're LBJ, and even then it pretty much cost LBJ his career.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. I'm not sure about the...

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what?

MARTIN: Well, go ahead.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean Puffy wasn't a poli-sci major at Howard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: And, you know, anybody with a tattoo on the neck giving political advice, I don't know, I'm not really paying a lot of attention. So, with that said...

MARTIN: Oh, man. That's harsh.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...I don't know when Puffy - it is, isn't it? You know, but I don't know when he became a political savant. I mean I don't know when that happened, you know, so I'm not really, I mean his politics are his politics. You know, but that said, what he needs to know is that what's good for America is good for black people. And he...

Mr. WILLIAMS: The rising tide lifts all boats.

MARTIN: Well, no. But I think...

Mr. IZRAEL: Or, whatever. I mean, but I mean at the end of the day, it's like, you know, he was elected president of the United States; he wasn't elected president of the black United States. Black people - I mean there are many black people that forget that.

Mr. TORRE: And I think playing, I mean criticizing a president...

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, Pablo.

Mr. TORRE: I think criticizing a president for playing the politics game is maybe the wrong tactic taken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's like saying, just criticizing the Steelers for playing football, right?

Mr. TORRE: But I will say that I have seen - I don't necessarily think that we should necessarily make this out to having defenses of Mr. Combs in terms of saying he wasn't necessarily the trenchant critic that maybe we're making him out to be. After all, I have seen an episode "Making the Band," where he did make a guy walk across the Brooklyn Bridge for a Junior's Cheesecake so...

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. TORRE: He can get a lot angrier than this most of the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: This is that same guy. This is that same guy.

MARTIN: But he's a citizen. I mean, you know what I mean, what's good for the goose is good for the - everybody...

Mr. TORRE: He did do a great job in rallying support and rallying political activism in terms of...

MARTIN: Well, but whenever artists step out there people are on their case. If they agree with them they love them. If they don't agree with them they're mad at them, they say stay in your lane. I mean the same thing with Springsteen. You know, people say the same thing.

Mr. TORRE: Well, I...

MARTIN: When they think he's right to go, yay. And when if they don't think he's right they go stay in your lane.

So, speaking of lanes, sorry, we have a couple of minutes left and, you know, I'm kind of, kind of, kind of recovered from my Jets losing. Kind of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So the Super Bowl is Sunday.

Mr. TORRE: You're used to Michelle, aren't you?

MARTIN: Oh, see.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Hey.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh. Ouch. Aye yi, yi.

MARTIN: Pablo, I thought you and I were I thought you were my boy and this is what I get.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Cold blooded.

MARTIN: This is what I get. As I was saying, the Steelers versus the Packers. So, hit me. Arsalan, you want to take it?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Hide your kids. Hide your wives. Super Bowl XLV.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I got to go with the terrible towel, man. I think that the Steelers' defense at the end of the day is going to come up big. I think Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, are going to come up with some big plays. The Green Bay Packers are a great story. They're sort of like last year's New Orleans Saints, but, you know, they basically beat a third string quarterback in Chicago last, you know, a few weeks ago at an NFC championship game. I think, the Steelers have had a tougher road. I think they're a more resilient team. I think the Steelers win by 10.

MARTIN: Joe, I want to hear from you. But then Pablo, they're some other deeper issues against this that I want to hear from you about.

Mr. TORRE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So Joe, Jimi, give me quickly your predictions, then we'll give Pablo the last word on what else we should be thinking about, so...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Steelers 23 to 10.

MARTIN: OK. Jimi?

Mr. IZRAEL: I'm riding with the Packers, because anybody that's not Pittsburgh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, (unintelligible). All right, Pablo?

Mr. TORRE: Well, yeah. I mean real quick first, I say Packers, just because I'd like to see Aaron Rogers. I think there's a great irony in him having beat symbolically Brett Favre in terms of coming out of his shadow finally. And also the other great shadow upon this season, Ben Roethlisberger. So I'd like to see him emerge from all that.

But the deeper issues, yeah, I mean I think one of the things that we're going to be watching for out - well, a couple of things. But first off is this lock out. I think odds are pretty much even at this point in terms of what can happen. Obviously, the union is posturing right now. It's difficult to tell what's going to happen but I think that's a very real concern.

And the larger question I think you were discussing before and have been for the past year is, you know, what football's future in America? I think let's pretend a lockout happens and let's pretend that people are forced to take a step back and realize that this is millionaires fighting against billionaires. There's that element of distaste.

But maybe the greater one is what the future of what this country is in terms of the youth playing the sport in terms of head injuries. Is that going to give us a window to reevaluate what's going to happen, and is the future of football going to be sapped by the, you know, sudden deficiency in young bodies willing to fling themselves at each other. And maybe this is an opportunity to reflect on that if we don't have the game to watch anymore because it is far and away the number one program in America. Women make up 44 percent of the Super Bowl audience, which is nuts at this point, and there is nothing, not even "American Idol" that can compete with it.

MARTIN: Well, but on the other hand, you've got like players like James Harrison, we don't have time to play the clip, where he was, you know, fined $100,000 for illegal hits and he just said, well, I just want to tackle them softly on the ground and if we all can, we'll lay a pillow down where I'm going to tackle them so they don't hit the ground too hard.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I loved it. Mr. Goodell.

MARTIN: So you've obviously. Mr. Goodell...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...speaking to NFL Commissioner Goodell. So obviously there's the other perspective, which is hitting is what football is about, so...

Mr. TORRE: But I almost think that could be a generational difference though. That could almost be the old guy on his porch shaking his cane at kids. I mean I don't think kids are necessarily going to want to emerge out of their pro careers.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Get off my lawn.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, out of their pro careers with dementia, for example. And James Harrison, God bless him, hopefully doesn't have that. But God forbid he does and there are numerous other players who have, I think that outweighs the kind of machismo that James Harrison wonderfully is known for.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, but see that's...

MARTIN: You really think we could actually get to a point where people consider it just ethically not acceptable to watch football? Pablo, you really think?

Mr. WILLIAMS: No.

Mr. TORRE: I think parents one day - I'm not saying it's going to be in 20 years or maybe 25 years, maybe 30 years, I'm saying parents gradually are going to realize that when the medical information becomes more and more solid and more and more lucid, they're going to realize that this is not something that I can really send my kids into with a real clean conscience and it may become more boxing like because of it.

MARTIN: Joe says when hell freezes over. So what's...

Mr. TORRE: You're not alone. He's not alone.

MARTIN: All right. All right.

Pablo Torre, who you just heard, is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He was with us from our studios in New York. Joe Williams is a White House editor for Politico. He joined us from his offices in Arlington, Virginia, outside of Washington. Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. And Jimi Izrael is the author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Thanks everybody.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Hey, thanks.

Mr. TORRE: Thanks.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more on Monday.

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