In 2011 Politics, 'Best New Artist' Is ...

Host Michel Martin looks at some of the year's top political moments with the 'Tell Me Awards.' Who are the winners and losers? Nominees range from Tim Geithner to the women who accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment. Martin talks with journalism professor Cynthia Tucker and U.S. News and World Report columnist Mary Kate Cary.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

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

Coming up, the New Year's party gets an early start in the Barber Shop. The guys pop the cork on 2011 with a special shop talk about the most buzz worthy news of the year.

But first, as experts of all stripes are compiling their end-of-year best of list, we also decided to take a look back at some of the political moments that baffled, amazed, maybe even made us laugh a little bit during the evening news.

So, for the second year in a row, we decided to honor some of those moments with our own TELL ME awards, black tie is optional. We'll hand out prizes for Best Male Pop Vocal, Lifetime Achievement Award, and the ever popular Best Comedy Album to the notable and perhaps notorious political characters of 2011.

Returning to the red carpet, our own dynamic duo of political commentators. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is now a journalism professor at the University of Georgia. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist for U.S. News and World Report and a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Ladies, welcome back to you both. Happy holidays. Happy New Year.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here. Yes.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Same to you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, let's get started with Best Male Pop Vocal. And, Mary Kate, I believe we have a clip of tape for your pick. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: We believe the days of business as usual must come to an end. We hold to a couple of simple convictions - endless borrowing is not a strategy. Spending cuts have to come first.

MARTIN: Name that nominee, Mary Kate.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: Give me that nominee in one note, Paul Ryan.

MARTIN: Of course we're talking about Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin who's the chair, current chair of...

CARY: Right, current chair.

MARTIN: ...the budget committee.

CARY: For his path to prosperity budget, which was number one with the bullet amongst conservatives. It went straight to the top of the charts, passed the House 235 to 193. But then lost by 17 votes in the Senate, which is better than the president's budget did which went down unanimously in the Senate. It included entitlement reform, tax reform, reined in spending. But most of all, it caused the White House to pivot in its messaging over to deficit reduction and it changed the terms of the debate in the presidential race.

MARTIN: All right, Cynthia Tucker, your choice for best man of political pop. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY TIM GEITHNER: The credit agencies around the world have said that if Congress doesn't act by the 2nd, they will downgrade our credit, first time in history. And if that happens, you're going to see catastrophic damage across the American economy and across the global economy.

MARTIN: So, Cynthia Tucker, name that nominee and tell us why he's your winner.

TUCKER: That's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. It's true that he's a back-up singer who is rarely noticed by audiences who keep their eyes on the front man, President Obama. But Geithner sings in complete harmony with the cerebral front man and his strong performance has kept the U.S. economy from falling off the cliff. Sometimes there is a little grumbling that maybe he has pulled the president off key, but I think he's one of those performers that history will note was really strong in his role.

MARTIN: Well, let's stick with that theme of the debt ceiling for a minute, Cynthia, because I understand that your choice for Best Female Pop Vocal played an important symbolic role on that issue. Who did you choose for this category?

TUCKER: I chose U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Hers was one of the most inspirational political stories in modern history, quite frankly. She's still recovering from her devastating brain injury when she was of course shot by a gunman who went on a shooting spree, wounded 19 people, including the congresswoman; killed six, including a nine-year-old girl. But she is making a miraculous recovery and she came back to Washington to vote to raise the debt ceiling.

MARTIN: That was a remarkable moment. I think that everybody...

TUCKER: It really was.

MARTIN: ...who remembers it, just that picture was one of the few times...

TUCKER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...really all year that you've seen members of the House from both political parties smiling.

TUCKER: Yes, (unintelligible), yeah.

MARTIN: And actually seeming to share kind of a common ground, unforgettable.

TUCKER: It was powerful.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're handing out our second annual TELL ME awards, prizes for the big hits and maybe some misses of the political year. My guests are Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and journalism professor Cynthia Tucker and Mary Kate Cary, columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report and former presidential speechwriter.

So, Mary Kate, your choice for Best Female Pop Vocal actually goes to more than one woman and I have a little hint.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SHARON BIALEK: I said, what are you doing? You know, I have a boyfriend. This isn't what I came here for. Mr. Cain said: You want a job, right?

GINGER WHITE: I was aware that he was married and I was also aware that I was involved in a very inappropriate situation.

MARTIN: So, actually two women get your vote and there are actually more women who are...

CARY: Oh, yes, there's a whole group.

MARTIN: There's a whole group, Mary Kate. Why do you...

CARY: It is not a solo artist here.

MARTIN: No, it's not a solo artist, it's a group. Why did you pick this particular group?

CARY: The group is Herman Cain's accusers. The first one to come forward was Sharon Bialek. Much later Ginger White came forward. But she was different because she was admitting to a long-time affair. They could have chosen to remain anonymous and they came forward at great risk to their own personal reputations, especially the sexual harassment charges. Nobody wants to come forward and talk about that.

I think that they started an ongoing conversation about marital fidelity and politics this year. And I think that was part of this conversation is, is cheating OK in politics. And I think the consensus has come to say no. Most people don't think cheating is OK. And this was what started a lot of that conversation.

MARTIN: Do you think that there is a lasting impact on the race?

CARY: Well, yeah, it's continued through Newt Gingrich's campaign. There's still that question, you know, what's acceptable, what's not. And I think that's a healthy conversation to have.

MARTIN: So, let's move on to the Best New Artist category. This is always one of my favorites. Mary Kate, I think we have a clip of your nominee for this category.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SERGEANT DAKOTA MYERS: You know, you either get them out alive or you die trying. And if you didn't die trying, you didn't try hard enough.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, tell us.

CARY: OK. That's a voice probably not known to many Americans. That's the voice of Marine Sergeant Dakota Myers, first living Medal of Honor recipient in 40 years. He's part of a new generation of war heroes who are terrific problem solvers. They're good at nation building. They are entrepreneurial. I think they're going to have a tremendous effect on our public life and our politics. I'm hoping many of them start businesses and run for office. I heard him speak the other day and thought he was terrific.

He was also my nominee for Best Performance in a Live Ambush with a Hand Grenade, but we don't have that category this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: No, we don't. We don't. We don't, thank goodness. Well, I don't know if Dakota Myers is interested in a political career for himself. But we do know that he's appeared in an ad for Texas Governor Rick Perry who's waging a presidential campaign. It's just - at least he has some passing interest in the process.

CARY: Right, right.

MARTIN: Cynthia, we also have a clip of your nominee, somebody who defied calls to jump into the presidential race. I might be giving it away. So, let's go to the tape. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Now is not my time. I have a commitment to New Jersey that I simply will not abandon.

MARTIN: OK, Cynthia, so that's New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Why is he your best new artist?

TUCKER: Well, you know, he is not that new because Republicans have been talking about him for quite some time. But this past year, he was catapulted onto the national stage by members of the Republican establishment who desperately wanted him to run for president of the United States. He's bright. He's taken some tough stances. He went in and cut spending in New Jersey. He has battled Democrats and won many of those battles.

He has a sensible moderate stance on many issues. So, there were many members of the Republican establishment pushing him to get in for 2012, you're the guy we need. You're the rising star we need this year. But I think he did the right thing. You know, you want to take your time and build those audiences on smaller stages before you do your big national tour. So, I think he's primed for the big national stage in 2016.

MARTIN: And now we want to pivot and honor those who've been in politics for a long time. Some people might say too long. Cynthia, we're going to start with your nominee and this is a voice that will be familiar to many people, at least now. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: When I am president, we're going to replace class warfare with cooperation so all Americans can get off food stamps and onto paychecks.

MARTIN: See, this is a little hometown boosterism, I think, Cynthia...

TUCKER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...from a fellow Georgian.

TUCKER: A local. Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah.

TUCKER: That's Newt Gingrich. This guy was a big-time star in the 1990s. I actually had thought that he couldn't possibly stage a comeback, but he has done so to vault to near the top of the polls in Republican primaries. He has lots of baggage, however, and that baggage is probably so substantial that it's going to weigh him down in the long run.

But I give him credit for this much. His campaign was left for dead and all but buried back in the summer. And he performed well enough in debates because, if there's one thing Newt Gingrich is good at, it's talking. And so, he did well enough in debates to give Mitt Romney a serious run for his money.

MARTIN: Are you saying that he deserves our acknowledgement for his political skill in resurrecting his campaign or because he really has added value to the conversations about the big issues? Which is it? Is it the policy side or is it the political side that you think that you want to acknowledge?

TUCKER: It is the political. It is the political side. I can't imagine that most people with Newt Gingrich's past would have even considered running for president.

MARTIN: All right. Well, more to come. More to come. So, with Newt Gingrich, anyway, because the Iowa caucuses are next week, it'll be really interesting to see in that first test how he...

CARY: How much longer his political lifetime lasts.

MARTIN: At least, in this end. So let's put kidding aside for just a minute. Mary Kate, I understand that you would like to acknowledge someone who is no longer with us in your Lifetime Achievement Award. Who is that?

CARY: Yeah. I was going to award a posthumous award to former First Lady Betty Ford, who we lost this year. In terms of our music metaphor, she had much better record sales all of her life, better than her husband did.

She was famous for redefining the role of first lady. She was much more political than previous first ladies had been. She was one of the first big Republican feminists of the modern era. And for our younger listeners, in 1974, she had a mastectomy while she was first lady, within weeks of becoming first lady, and nobody ever talked about things like that back then.

After they left the White House in 1978, her family had an intervention and confronted her about her addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs, which caused her to go on and start what was then the Betty Ford Clinic.

In 1991, my old boss, President Bush 41, gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And at her funeral this year, Richard Norton Smith, the great historian, called her the feminist next door, a free spirit with a dress code. And I thought that really was a great epitaph for her. She was truly a free spirit, but very acceptable to everyone. Everybody understood her and loved her dearly, you know, whether you agreed with her or not.

MARTIN: Thank you. Thank you for that.

CARY: Yeah. She was great.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but we are going to continue our annual political awards with the nominees for Best Comedy Album, so please stay with us...

CARY: All right.

MARTIN: ...on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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