Shop Talk: Did Romney Slow His Roll?

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The Barbershop guys discuss whether Mitt Romney put the brakes on his momentum when he said he was not concerned about the very poor. Host Michel Martin checks in with freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, and National Review contributor Neil Minkoff.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now 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 freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre.

And new to the shop, National Review contributor Neil Minkoff. Actually, fellows, don't be intimidated. He's actually Dr. Minkoff. He's trained as a primary care physician, so if you have any aches and pains you want to discuss with him, I'm sure he'll be happy to help you out.

DR. NEIL MINKOFF: I haven't touched a patient in well over a decade now, guys.

MARTIN: Well, you can't touch them, either. It is all like tele-medicine.

Anyway, take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

PABLO TORRE: Yo, what's up?

MINKOFF: Good.

IZRAEL: Dr. Neil, good to have you in, man.

MINKOFF: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be part of the proceedings.

IZRAEL: Alrighty then. Let's get things started with the Republican presidential candidate who seemed to have a very poor choice of words when it comes to the very poor. Now, you guys know who I'm talking about: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Michel, we got some tapes of the offending comments. Yeah?

MARTIN: Yeah. And I think it's good so people can hear for themselves exactly what he said. He spoke to CNN the morning after he won the Florida primary. He was speaking with CNN's Soledad O'Brien and the morning show. Here it is.

MITT ROMNEY: I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I'll continue to take that message across the nation.

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. Personally, he's - you know what? I don't know why he's catching all this flack, but he seems to be still catching a lot of flack for this comment. Arsalan Iftikhar.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: A-train, you're up first, man.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, this is not the first that, you know, Governor Romney has stuck his foot in his mouth during the campaign. We all remember the famous $10,000 bet that he extended to Governor Rick Perry and the fact that he said that he quotes "like firing people." And now he's saying that he's, quote, "not concerned about the very poor," but he's concerned about the 90 to 95 percent of Americans.

What he doesn't know is that, according to the 2010 census, 15 percent of the American public currently lives in poverty. Fifty-eight percent of Americans have at least spent one year in poverty during their lifetime. It seems, you know, with these statements, that he's really only pandering to the Carter Pewterschmidts and the Montgomery Burnses of the world. Excellent.

IZRAEL: Oh, wait a second. That's not fair, A-train. A-train, that's not fair.

MINKOFF: I know Carter Pewterschmidt. He's a very nice man.

IZRAEL: He clarified his comments. You know, I mean, what he meant to say was that, you know, he wanted to speak to the wide swath of middle class America and that's basically what he's been saying. That's the same tune he's been whistling his whole way down the trail. You know, he was trying to shorthand his message and he failed.

I mean, we can't all be as well scripted as Obama, man, but thank you so much for checking in. Neil of the National Review, this is your former governor, man. Come on. Check in.

MINKOFF: Yeah. I've got to check in because I'm probably the only person who has voted for him more than once. But you know, the problem Mitt has, I think, is that he keeps talking boardroom speak or equity language instead of speaking political. And this is a real problem for him. That's the same problem as when he said corporations are people, or he told Santorum that some of the things in the mandate weren't worth getting angry about.

If he had just said something like, you know, we have great safety nets like Medicaid and food stamps. We still have to take care of the poor, but we can't take care of the poor unless the middle class gets shored up. It would have been fine. He would have said it in a way that was considered acceptable. He's speaking, you know, economics shorthand and it's just not translating well.

IZRAEL: He's just not good off script. This guy - he needs to become a Muppet so somebody can feed him lines.

Pablo? Mr. Torre, I mean, you know, he said he's not down with the very rich, either, but he got a very rich endorsement from none other than Donald Trump. I don't - yesterday. I don't know that we care. Do we?

TORRE: Well, it was like, oh, thank God. Now, they have something to take their minds off of the fact that Mitt Romney doesn't care about very poor people by getting endorsed by the guy who fires people on television for fun.

No. I mean, Donald Trump is a character. I don't think anybody takes him seriously. Mitt Romney's problem is the rhetorical problem. I mean, he - just the rhetorical equivalence between mentioning on one hand the very poor, on one hand the very rich and saying they're both fine.

I mean, was anybody even going to consider the fact that Mitt Romney was going to spend his time helping very poor people? Was that like his messaging problem on the campaign trail? I don't think it was. So the fact that he's just volunteering this stuff, once again - and Neil put it very well - in a way that can be so at best misconstrued, and at worst reveal the sort of callous indifference towards people who he's very much unlike is troubling, not only as a person on the campaign trail, but also as a person who is expected to talk to the American public as the leader of the free world, as he may very well be doing in a year.

MARTIN: Let me just throw one more thing here.

IZRAEL: He's got...

MARTIN: Jimi, let me just throw one more thing in there.

IZRAEL: Go ahead. Sure.

MARTIN: He says that he misspoke. I mean there were days - for days he defended his comments.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And then he, you know, at the end of the day said he misspoke. But you know what they say; a gaffe in Washington is when a politician says what he really thinks. So there's that.

IZRAEL: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Let me just throw one thing out here just, which may be of interest. And I do want to mention that the unemployment rate has been dropping again. It dipped to 8.3 percent in January from 8.5 percent the month before. But roughly a quarter of Republican voters have annual family incomes under $30,000 a year. And most of those voters surveyed by the Pew Research Center, which provided these numbers, say that the government does not do enough for poor people in this country.

So I'm fascinated by this, this figure. I think that will probably be a surprise to many people who may assume that Republicans represent the one percent, so to speak. And so Neil, just before we move on, Dr. Neil, I wanted to ask you if, you know, a lot of people say, you know, Obama doesn't talk enough about the poor. But I did want to ask you if you feel that do Republicans have a message - a credible message - around the poor? Have you heard one?

MINKOFF: Well, I mean, to me, it seems as if one of the things - this goes back to the what's the matter with Kansas argument, which is what percent of those - how many of those 25 percent of the Republican voters who are not making lots of money are responding to the social message and are more social conservatives. And while on the one hand they feel government should be doing more to help the poor, on the other hand they're much more concerned about gay marriage or abortion or what have you on the social issues. So I'm not sure that you can take those two things apart when you're looking at a voting record.

MARTIN: Interesting. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And we're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop, getting ready for the weekend. We're joined by freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, Neil Minkoff, Dr. Neil Minkoff, he's a contributor to the National Review, and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, fellas, I got three words for you: Super Bowl Sunday.

MINKOFF: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: Mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: Yeah. That's what's up this weekend. A-Train. Arsalan Iftikhar, you know, I'm going to give you the floor since you've always - well, at least to date - well, recently...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: ...you correctly picked the teams. So who's going to walk away with the ring, man.

IFTIKHAR: Well...

MARTIN: A fact which he does not fail to remind us of every single week.

IZRAEL: I know, right?

IFTIKHAR: Right. Let me just...

TORRE: I have a Celtics story, Arsalan.

IFTIKHAR: Let me...

MARTIN: Don't bring your arm patting yourself on the back, OK? Because Neil would have to fix it.

IFTIKHAR: Let me brush – I'm going to brush my shoulders off before I give this prediction. But I think that this Super Bowl is going to be, is going to revolve around three syllables: Gronkowski. I think, you know, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is really going to, you know, be the X factor in this game. And, you know, as somebody who picked the Giants/Patriots Super Bowl, being an AFC East fan I, you know, if Eli Manning is a Jedi warrior than Tom Brady is Obi-Wan Kenobi. Patriots 24, Giants 20.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

TORRE: Wait a minute, I have issue with Arsalan's characterization of Tom Brady as a Jedi.

IZRAEL: Pablo, go ahead.

TORRE: It's very clear that Tom Brady...

IFTIKHAR: He's Obi-Wan, dog.

TORRE: As Obi-Wan, it's very clear that Tom Brady is at very least Darth Vader. I mean the guy is the most hateable athlete in sports universe.

MINKOFF: That's Belichick.

TORRE: Well, Bill Belichick is the emperor. I think Tom Brady is Darth Vader. He...

MARTIN: Why is he the most hated? Can you help me out with that?

TORRE: Yeah. Because this is why. It's pure envy, right? I mean he's the guy who basically looks like a male model, is absurdly successful and wealthy, dates Gisele Bundchen, lives in this - have you seen the mansion that he's building or just built? It's a $20 million mansion...

MINKOFF: And won a few Super Bowls on the way there.

TORRE: ...and he has Super Bowls.

MINKOFF: A couple years ago...

TORRE: It's oh, God.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: It's too much.

MARTIN: It's too much.

MINKOFF: A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to bring my son to meet Tom Brady and I can assure you there is no way to feel good about yourself as a man standing next to Tom Brady.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: Exactly.

MINKOFF: He's just perfect looking and rich and chiseled and has this gorgeous wife and I walked into the worst I've ever felt about myself.

MARTIN: But you wrote this piece for the National Review...

IZRAEL: You know, and people have said the same thing about me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh yeah, true. You're right, Jimi. When was that? I'm sorry, I forgot. But you wrote this piece for the National Review talking about the possibility of Brady actually falling flat on his face this Sunday. What's up with that?

MINKOFF: Well, I mean it's not so much this Sunday, although I'm worried about it, as it has been the last few playoff games. I mean, my theory is that, you know, great athletes react without thinking. And that's, you know, the zone. And Bird talks about the game slowing down for him. And Ochocinco is talking this season about the game being too fast for him so he can't catch anything. And that I think though what's happened is Brady is starting to think about being the greatest of all time and winning the fourth ring and all of the things that means to his legacy and he stopped reacting and he started thinking. And that rather than it just being a defensive lines getting after him, I think that he's actually been slow to release the ball because he is not just reacting, he's sitting there and looking, where's Welker, where's Branch, where's Gronk. And he's thinking too much.

IFTIKHAR: (Unintelligible), though.

TORRE: To me, I don't disagree with Neil at all but to me it seems like quibbling with Tom Brady's performance in recent years is kind of like my friends at Goldman Sachs crying about their bonuses this year. I mean the guy is still unbelievable and he's still throwing up top five numbers in basically every passing category. I see this game - I mean I'm in New York and when this happened in 2008 people literally sprung forward from their doors and into the streets and were rioting because the Giants had beat the Patriots. And if there's anything the NFL needs it's a Red Sox-Yankees football version. I think the Giants are going to do the exact same thing again, 17-14 Giants.

MARTIN: Thank you. Thank you.

MINKOFF: So I'm going to push back on that a little bit and say that - sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Go ahead, Neil. Neil, Dr. Neil, go ahead.

MINKOFF: No, no. It's just that I was going to push back and say that Brady's numbers don't bear that out. His last few playoff games, except for the one against the Broncos, which is very aberrational, he's had quarterback ratings of 49.1 and 57.5 when his career is something like a 96. So saying that Brady's not doing well isn't quibbling anymore, it's kind of a more what have you done for me lately? It's been five years.

TORRE: Right. Right. And this year though, regular season, 39 touchdown passes, fourth most in the league, second most yards. I mean obviously the playoffs are where your money is made, but he's been a very good quarterback this year too.

MARTIN: So Neil, hold on. Before we move on I have to ask Jimi who his pick is. So you're with the Patriots but is that your head or your heart?

IZRAEL: Well, actually, I...

MARTIN: No, I was asking Neil then I'm coming to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Oh...

MARTIN: I was asking Dr. Neil.

MINKOFF: It's my heart. It's my heart. My son was five when he started paying attention to football in 2007. He had never seen the Patriots won and he cried for two hours after the Super Bowl.

IZRAEL: Aw.

MARTIN: Aw.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MINKOFF: It's my heart. I don't want to watch him go through that again.

MARTIN: Now he's put us in a terrible quandary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, but not really because I'm from New York. Sorry.

TORRE: There you go.

MARTIN: OK. Jimi, who are you with? What are you watching?

IZRAEL: I'm watching Madden with the boy. And I think this is probably going to be the only way I'm going to get the Browns in the Super Bowl in my lifetime. So I think that's probably the way I'm going to go. I just might - and Madonna's, you know, during the halftime show. I think I'm going to have to tune out of the Super Bowl this year. Sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Yeah. I don't want to see that spectacle.

MARTIN: What a hater.

TORRE: Cry into your Browns jersey, Jimi. There you go.

IZRAEL: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Hater. Well, this is a sad note, kind of a sad note that we want to end on, but we want to talk about. Well, I don't know if it's sad. We want to mark the legacy of Don Cornelius, the creator of the television show "Soul Train." He was found dead of an apparent suicide earlier this week. He was 75 years old. But Jimi, I think we'd like to focus on the legacy here. So what are your memories?

IZRAEL: Well, I mean it's interesting because my mom didn't really let me watch "Soul Train" that much because, you know, the women were really scantily cladded. And in my market, you know, it came on after dark. So I mean it was kind of like "BET Uncut" lightweight. But, of course, I snuck and watched it and I had friends also that traveled to get on the show. And, you know, when they got back, you know, I mean, having been on soul train that was like their social Jeri curl.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: I mean it changed how you looked at them and they gave them entree into a whole new, like, every social circle imaginable. You know, but I got to say this, I mean "Soul Train," you know, after Don retired it was virtually unwatchable. I mean he was the soul of the "Soul Train" and he'll be missed.

TORRE: Well...

MARTIN: Arsalan? OK, Pablo, you had something?

TORRE: Yeah. Just to a jump in real quick. This is obviously, you know, before my time a little bit.

MARTIN: Oh please.

TORRE: But I was watching all these YouTube videos last night and they're great. And the thing that somebody wrote in an obituary that this was like the forerunner for "So You Think You Can Dance," and "America's Best Dance Crew"...

IFTIKHAR: Nah.

TORRE: That kind of strikes me as so off.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

TORRE: I mean this show was something where you appreciated music for music's sake and dancing as something that you could hope to emulate possibly. I don't think anybody watches those shows to see what's cool today. I wonder what the next show is that will be the real homage to "Soul Train."

MARTIN: Well it kind of was the real reality show of his time, because I can tell you that since - it is not before my time - since you pointed it out, Pablo. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know, we used to run to get through our chores on Saturday mornings so that we could watch "Soul Train" because if we hadn't done all of our chores we couldn't watch it. So that is how we practiced our dance moves and that's how we learned them is by watching "Soul Train." I mean that's what we do.

Arsalan, you follow this.

IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah. And, you know, as somebody who grew up in Chicago, you know, Don Cornelius was a Chicago institution. You know, before it went into national syndication from 1971 to 2006, it was actually - "Soul Train" was a local show on WCIU-TV in Chicago. And, you know, like you said, Don Cornelius epitomized cool. You know, it was sort of, you know, for those of us people of color growing up in Chicago in the '80s, like some of us who couldn't really tie into the Dick Clark "American Bandstand" zeitgeist, "Soul Train" was it for us. And so, you know, he truly epitomized cool and, you know, the voice of a generation.

MARTIN: Well, it kind of normalized the urban scene.

IFTIKHAR: Exactly.

MARTIN: You know what I mean? It's like the kinds of clothes. I mean, I don't know about you. I was not allowed to wear those clothes. I mean, I was not allowed to wear like those pants and those platform shoes and all that other thing. But I did have a big fro, which if any of you pay me a very large sum of money, I'll let you see pictures of.

TORRE: Oh man.

IFTIKHAR: I'll see you on that yearbook

TORRE: I've got five on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Dr. Neil, do you have any final, do you have any thoughts about this?

MINKOFF: Yeah. So I had a different take on it, having been a primary care doctor and been involved, and just spending part of this week talking about end-of-life issues. I mean from everything that I've read or seen it seemed as if this man had really been suffering with a lot of chronic pain and a lot of chronic disability. And I think that's a big issue - not to be overly serious here - but, you know, this is one of the big issues in health care is that we aren't really good as either a health care system or a society with figuring out how to take care of people with chronic pain and chronic disability. And, you know, this seemed like one of those tragic reminders of the fact that we need to do better here.

MARTIN: Hmm. That's an important thought. So thank you for that. So, you know, we have to go out on the theme. But can I get one of the wishing you? Can I get one of those? Can I - wishing you? Come on, Arsalan help me.

IFTIKHAR: Love. Peace - love. Peace. And soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh you can do better than that.

IZRAEL: Soooul Train.

MARTIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: I can do the falsetto.

IZRAEL: Soooul Train.

MARTIN: Thank you. Here we go.

IZRAEL: Yeah. No problem.

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from our NPR studios in New York. Neil Minkoff is a health care consultant with Fountainhead Health Care - Dr. Neil Minkoff. He's also a contributor to the National Review. He joined us from Boston.

And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of the themuslimguy.com and author of "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." He was here with me in our Washington D.C. studio.

Gentlemen, thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Love, peace and soul.

TORRE: Thank you.

MINKOFF: Thanks so much.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG, "SOUL TRAIN")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG, "SOUL TRAIN")

THE THREE DEGREES: (Singing) Let's get it on. It's time to get down. Let's get it on. It's time to get down. Let's get it on. It's time to get down. Let's get it on. It's time to get down. Let's get it on.

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