Shop Talk: Obama's Controversial Response To Joplin's Disaster

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The guys in the Barbershop weigh in on President Obama's response to the devastation in Joplin, MO and give their take on the U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering California to reduce its overcrowded prison population. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre.

ALLISON KEYES, Host:

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

And it's time for the 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, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Allison. Hey, good to have you in the shop. How you doin', Chicago?

KEYES: I'm good. I'm a little sad, but I'm good.

IZRAEL: Right. Right. Right. Fellas.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Fellas, what's good? Welcome to the shop. How we doin'?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: What's up?

PABLO TORRE: Hey, good, man. Good.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Hey, hey, hey. What's going on? What's crackin'?

IZRAEL: Well, all right. Well, there's some sad news this week. The tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri on Sunday, now death toll now past 130. More than 230 people are still missing. At the same time, President Obama was starting a six-day tour through Europe. Now, of course the president sent FEMA to the area and promised to provide any resources needed for recovery, but some critics say that the president should be - should not be having tea and crumpets in England while people are trapped in the storm wreckage in Missouri, Allison.

KEYES: Yeah, this visit to Europe has been kind of an easy target for those who take criticism of the president as part of their daily job. Here's Fox Business host Eric Bolling on the timing of the trip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "FOX BUSINESS")

ERIC BOLLING: Mr. Obama, you've decided that chugging a few 40s and rediscovering your Irish is more important than a presidential visit to a community trying to figure out what just hit them.

IZRAEL: Mm, mm, mm, wow.

TORRE: Ah.

KEYES: Is a Guinness 40 ounces?

IFTIKHAR: Chugging a few 40s? Chugging a few...

IZRAEL: No, no, no. Obviously it's his attempt at frat boy humor slash coded language. Thank you for that, Allison. You know, this is what I got to say. you for that Allison. You know, I, this is what I got to say. It's not a great look.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: But by the same token, it's not like President Obama's Superman, despite his campaign promises. Look, he's not going to wave a magic wand. I think he's overseas securing our interest abroad. And he already has a system here in place that works. You know, if he were, if he did hop on a plane or, you know, put on the cape and cowl and go over there to Joplin, Missouri, he'd be accused of grandstanding, I think. And I think he's handling...

IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm. That's a good point.

IZRAEL: This in the exact right way. Pablo, what do you think? Do you think the president should cut his trip short?

TORRE: You know, I wasn't bothered by his decision. I mean he's going on Sunday, right? It's not like he's saying...

IZRAEL: Right.

TORRE: ...you know what? You know, you guys are good. I'm going to do my own thing here. It's just a matter of...

IZRAEL: It's like you're going, it's not like he's going on spring break or anything.

TORRE: Right. It's a matter of his priorities. I mean God knows that the one thing in this situation the president isn't guilty of or any president, really, is insensitivity. I mean at this point every president knows that their decision is going to be criticized. So from the most cynical perspective, God knows they debated this, they thought about it, they put a lot of care into it. To me, the bigger and more abstract question is whether there's like a bright line or criteria for when a president needs to sort of swoop in and make an appearance, which is ultimately almost purely symbolic and emotional anyway.

Obviously 9/11 is an obvious choice, for example. Katrina. But what's the test case? Is it - and not to minimize the horror in Joplin at all, but I'm just saying it is a sort of a slippery slope idea. At what point do we want him to show up? Is it five deaths, 100 deaths, 500? Do we vote? I mean what happens? I mean at some point I have to trust the president to make sense of his own daily schedule, send the actual practical units, you know, FEMA and all that to Joplin, and then go on his way and then he'll deal with it on Sunday.

IZRAEL: Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: Well, listen, let's talk about what this is really about. And I, one of the things that dies in D.C. is...

IZRAEL: Okay.

NAVARRETTE: ...is moral consistency. You know, it's situational ethics. By guy did it but it was okay. Now your guy did it. Oh, it's not okay. This is Fox News's attempt to pay back the criticism of Bush over Katrina, that's what this is. And there is some validity to that. Because the same arguments that we could have used, you know, President Bush - President Obama shouldn't rush back to Joplin because he'll be accused of grandstanding. Okay, they said that in defense of Bush and Katrina. Oh, you know, he shouldn't rush to Joplin because he will just be a distraction, he'll get in the way. They said that in defense of Bush. I think if you are of the opinion that George Bush blew the response to Katrina, and I am, it's very difficult then to turn around and say that Obama and his team handled this absolutely correctly.

KEYES: we got to start playing the game by one set of rules. We've got to make this an accurate comparison. If it was wrong for Bush to appear so detached, uncaring with regard to Katrina, it's just as wrong when Obama does it. Anybody who says otherwise is a hypocrite. You know, they're playing the game by two sets of rules. They're giving the guy a pass when they went after the other guy, and that's what this is really about.

KEYES: And there's also...

IZRAEL: A-Train.

KEYES: And there's also before Arsalan - sorry, Jimi , but there's also...

IZRAEL: Sure.

KEYES: ...the argument that isn't it part of the president's job to be there to comfort people right after a disaster? I mean some of the people down there...

NAVARRETTE: Sure.

KEYES: Were pretty much like, as you said, he's drinking tea, he's formal dinner with the Queen and we are down here looking for our kids. Sorry, Arsalan. Go ahead.

IFTIKHAR: It's okay. You know, the first thing that I want to address is chugging a 40? Really? I mean what other stereotypical trope was that Fox, you know, anchor going to say next? You know, eating watermelon with the queen? I mean if it were George Bush, chugging a 40 would never have entered this collective consciousness.

KEYES: Watermelon?

IFTIKHAR: That being said, I actually lived in Missouri for seven years of my life. I went to college and law school there. I've been to Joplin, Missouri, many times. You know, my heart goes out to the people of Joplin, Missouri. I do think it's important Ruben, to play by the same set of rules. But my pushback to you on that would be that during Katrina we never saw any Fox anchors calling on President Bush for not showing up there on time. You know, this is political grandstanding. And, you know, at the end of the day, you know, like you said, we have to play by one set of rules. But we also have to call out that same hypocrisy when we know for a fact that that same sort of calling out wasn't done in a previous presidential administration.

NAVARRETTE: And this is Ruben. The reason we didn't see that on Fox News is because we heard on CNN, NPR, ABC, CBS, NBC, everywhere else the criticism was there about Bush and Katrina. And so, yeah, I mean people do that. I think we just have to get to a point where we don't just give our guy a pass. This didn't look good because as Allison said, I think there is this kind of comforter-in-chief. Okay, comforter-in-chief.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: One of the things that helped I think save the Bill Clinton presidency was his response to the Oklahoma City bombing.

KEYES: And his ability to feel publicly.

NAVARRETTE: Absolutely. That - the bedside manner.

KEYES: But wait. Gentleman? Gentleman? You know, I have to jump in. I've got to jump in. You know, clock running. If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop segment. We're joined by author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Allison. I want Ruben to finish that point tightly and quickly. And let's put it in motion, please.

KEYES: Thanks for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Tick. Tick.

NAVARRETTE: Well, I'll say this, another time when a Republican didn't do so well was when Bush 41 was seen out in Kennebunkport on vacation during Hurricane Andrew when hurricane Andrew hit Miami.

KEYES: That's right.

NAVARRETTE: And there were people in Miami who said you're our president. You need to be here with us not, you know, touring the world, not in other places. So again, it happens to both administrations. It does. It's just it's inevitable that people are going to get this criticism.

IZRAEL: Right.

NAVARRETTE: But there is a role to be played. I want to see my president down there hugging people, doing what he can, sleeves rolled up. Honestly, I don't want to see him having tea with the queen. It's not my thing.

IZRAEL: Okay. All right. Well, I can dig that. And we'll keep that conversation flowing. But from problems in the Midwest to problems for the West Coast. Now this week, the Supreme Court ordered California to shrink their prison population by 33,000 people. The court said the prisons are overcrowded; it violates the constitutional rights of safety. While the courts didn't specify exactly how it had to be done, the gist is well, quit stalling. Yikes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: You know, I'm getting shades of Oliver Stone's "Scarface."

KEYES: Oh, wow.

IZRAEL: You know, the Mariel boat dealy(ph). Yo, Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: Boat dealy. That's exactly how. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Ruben? You're...

NAVARRETTE: That's how they refer to it in history, actually.

IZRAEL: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: It's Wikipedia thing.

IZRAEL: Right.

NAVARRETTE: Here's my...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, man.

Speaking from California. Speaking from California, here's my thing, and I grew up in this state, I remember - and I said this in a column I wrote this week for CNN - I remember having this conversation in high school over, you know, are you going to debate in our government class gun control, abortion or prison reform? We have been kicking this can down the road in California for 30 years at least. And it is not fair I think to blame the justices and the court system for doing to California, you know, putting up a mirror and saying you can't keep putting this off. You've got to fix this.

NAVARRETTE: You have capacity in the prisons that are 200 percent of capacity. You have cells that were built, they're about six feet to nine feet in dimension, by nine feet in dimension and they are meant for one prisoner and you've got three in there. And it only gets bigger. And it gets bigger why? Because we in California do not want to have our taxes go up anymore. We're already overly taxed. Severely overtaxed. And we don't want to pay more taxes or more prisons. Bigger than that, we don't want to put the prisons in our neighborhood. It's this whole Nimby thing, not in my backyard, right? So there's no place to put the prisons and so we continue not to build them in the population goes up, and so we have this problem.

And now we can blame the justices. We can blame everybody else and say, you know, it's somebody else's fault. But it's not. It's our fault. And Californians brought this on themselves. We knew this day was coming. And now we got to find some way in the next few weeks to come up with a plan. Our state officials are saying they're going to come up with a plan to present the federal courts that will say we'll have something else to do. We'll have another way of getting at this problem without a mass release. We'll see how that flies. But, you know, it's up. You know, it was coming due and it came due.

IFTIKHAR: Well, and to clear...

IZRAEL: A-Train, go ahead, man.

IFTIKHAR: Thanks, Jimi. You know, to clarify, it's not a mass release. You know, and Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, you know, talked about quote "happy go lucky prisoners running free." This is basically sending 33,000 overflow prisoners to city and county jails, local jails. So moving it from the state level and to the local and city levels. So that first has to be made clear.

You know, the Supreme Court case here, Brown v., played a, you know, revolved around the Eighth Amendment, constitutional right from protection against cruel and unusual punishment. And, you know, in addition to what Ruben said, you know, there were prisoners who literally died from this overcrowding, prisoners living literally in their own feces. Like I mean some pretty horrific stuff. And, you know, what has to happen now, the court has given California two years now to make this transition. And it's not about actually where to send them. They have prisons to send them to. It's the budget behind it. It's saying, how are we going to get the hundred plus million dollars in order to appropriate the funds necessary to move them? And let's not forget, California is also the, you know, the state with the ridiculous three strikes law.

KEYES: Huge.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Right.

KEYES: And the huge budget crisis. But I need to jump and note that the plan to release them is costing hundreds of millions of dollars that's supposed to pay for tax hikes. And there is always the question, okay, if they don't send them to other prisons or to federal prisons or send the undocumented immigrants someplace else, then some of these folk might end up on the street.

IFTIKHAR: You know, another alternative that they're suggesting is that they might send them to prisons in neighboring Arizona, Colorado, other places where they because, you know, prison is make - they make, you know, 50, $60,000 per prisoner.

KEYES: Right.

IFTIKHAR: And so, you know, so there is that there. So I mean again, this is not a sort of walking the streets tough on crime issue. This is more of a budgetary issue on. Yes, Ruben is absolutely right that, you know, this is a, prison overcrowding has been a problem for over 30 years in California. Now how do we remedy this in a way that's the most cost-effective?

NAVARRETTE: Right.

KEYES: But if they don't fund this plan, what happens now?

IFTIKHAR: It'll go to Colorado, Arizona or New Mexico.

KEYES: But gentlemen, I...

NAVARRETTE: No. I think, and Allison's right. We don't know how it's going to turn out and this - we're full at the local level too. I mean those county jails are full. They don't want the prisoners either. They don't have room for them. So this is still to be continued. We're going to figure out how this is going to play out. It could be a bad thing but it's, you know, it's time that Californians face up to it.

IZRAEL: All right. Allison, did you have something you wanted throw in there?

KEYES: I was only hoping that you were going to address the pain of two of the people sitting in the studio here and talk about some sports, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Yeah. Got to talk about the Bulls.

KEYES: The Bulls.

IZRAEL: You know, we got to talk about last night's game.

KEYES: No.

IZRAEL: Chicago Bulls versus the Heat. We got some tape, maybe, right?

IFTIKHAR: We got tape, Allison?

KEYES: We do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...on the wing throws up a prayer and the ball taken by Miller. And that's the ballgame. What a comeback for the Miami Heat. They'll advance to the NBA championship for the second time in franchise history. An unbelievable...

IFTIKHAR: Oh, man.

IZRAEL: Wow. Yeah. Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: That was painful.

IZRAEL: Yup. The Miami Heat beat the Chicago Bulls last night 83 to 80. Not a trouncing but this is what those of us that have been watching LB - LeBron James - for his whole career, you know, this is what he's good at. He's good at the comeback. You know, fortunately I think, fortunately for this young man, that he has the team to back him up and he doesn't, he's not wearing the whole, you know, the whole scoreboard on his back. You know, I mean he...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: He doesn't have Cleveland on his chest.

IZRAEL: Right.

KEYES: Right. Still.

IZRAEL: Right. Right. Right. Arsalan?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: What are they thinking to do?

IZRAEL: Allison, were you guys crying last night?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, first of all, you know, the Bulls...

KEYES: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: The Bulls had a 12 point lead with three...

KEYES: With the last...

IFTIKHAR: It's like how are you going to blow a 12 point lead at home in a must win situation? It's winner stay home.

KEYES: And offensive rebounds. Offensive rebounds. Offensive rebounds.

IFTIKHAR: And I think Pablo will agree with this also, you know, late in the third, early in the fourth when Carlos Boozer through this flagrant elbow...

KEYES: Elbow. Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: ...into LeBron James' face I think that woke up...

KEYES: There were like what, eight free throws in a minute 10? It was something like that?

TORRE: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: It was something. They made a four-point play later with...

TORRE: Right.

IFTIKHAR: ...D. Wade. I mean I think anybody outside the city of Miami is not rooting for the Dallas Mavericks and we want you to go get your ring Dirk, so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: Well, look, if the Heat, if the Big Three on the Heat - LeBron, Wade and Bosh, obviously - are scoring 69 of 83 points and they're winning...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

TORRE: I mean this is the blueprint that to LeBron James's credit, he and those two other guys drew up, right? I mean it was first off championship or bust. That's what they said in their ridiculous preening to begin the season. And to their credit, they are there. They had their chance and it looks like honestly, I don't know who's going to stop those guys on the Dallas Mavericks. I mean they have some players like Dirk Nowitzki...

KEYES: But somebody will.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: Dirk is great. He's not going to stop anybody.

NAVARRETTE: Right. Big.

TORRE: Tyson Chandler is good. He'll throw some bodies around, but Jesus, I mean this is a team that was designed for a title, they're there and it seems like an increasingly foregone conclusion that when those three, you know, when those three players are firing on all cylinders that they're going to get it. It's sad.

KEYES: Really really quickly. Before we go, Tiki Barber, the former NFL Giants player who is also trying to get back on the field, compared himself to Anne Frank this week. Yes, because he and his Jewish girlfriend moved into his agent's attic to avoid media scrutiny. He said they were living quote, "a reverse Anne Frank thing." Seriously?

IFTIKHAR: Oh, man.

KEYES: Fellas.

TORRE: You know, it's just not that hard to not make Holocaust allusions.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

TORRE: Just don't do it. I mean unless you're actually talking about the Holocaust, I feel like it's a fairly obvious rule that a lot of people don't get and Tiki Barber is just the latest to put his foot in his mouth. I don't think he's an anti-Semite by any means. He was in Israel, for God's sakes five years ago, I think, as a guest of the president, Shimon Peres. It's just one of those things where it's just the easel, it's the closest parallel, closest metaphor within reach and people just got to stop reaching for it.

IFTIKHAR: And, you know, I'm going to have to give Barber the Come On Man award of the week because seriously...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: I know you're last name is Barber but...

NAVARRETTE: Is there a check with that? I need to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: Listen, I know your last name...

TORRE: Arsalan shows up at your house. Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: I know your last name is Barber but you give barbershops around the country a bad name with that stuff.

IZRAEL: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: That was just bad taste. Let's not forget he also left his wife while she was pregnant with twins.

KEYES: Twins.

IFTIKHAR: I mean come...

IZRAEL: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: You know, there's no...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Right. All right. Wait. I've got to jump in. Ruben has been - I'm sorry, Arsalan has been waiting to say that all day.

(SOUNDBITE LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Got to go. Got to go. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from New York at NPR studios. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers Group and CNN.com. He joined us from San Diego. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of the Muslim Guy, and managing editor of the Crescent Post, right here in D.C. with me. Thank you, gentlemen so much as always.

IFTIKHAR: Go Mavericks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

TORRE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

KEYES: That's our program for today. I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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