Shop Talk: Judge Apologizes For Joke ... Enough?

The Barbershop guys preview Super Tuesday and weigh in on Judge Richard Cebull's email that included a joke about President Obama's heritage. Host Michel Martin checks in with freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, columnists Ruben Navarrette and Mario Loyola, and Colorlines.com Editorial Director Kai Wright. Advisory: This segment may not be comfortable for some listeners.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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 Barber Shop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael. He joins us from Cleveland. In San Diego, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. In New York, Kai Wright. He is editorial director of Colorlines.com. And here in Washington, D.C. - he happened to be visiting us today, so we invited him in - from the National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mario Loyola.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Super Mario's in the house. What's up, man?

MARIO LOYOLA: Buenos dias.

IZRAEL: Kai, what's up? How you living?

KAI WRIGHT: I'm loving it, man.

IZRAEL: Right. Ruben, my man, what's new?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Doing good, baby.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get things started with talking about a sneak preview of Super Tuesday. Yes. Next Tuesday, 10 states will hold a caucus or a primary, and the candidates are stomping hard for votes. I think - we've got a clip, right, Michel?

MARTIN: Sure we do. And just to give you an example of the fact that people really are, you know, racking up those frequent flyer miles - I don't know. Do they get frequent flyer miles on a charter? I'm not sure.

IZRAEL: Probably. I don't know.

MARTIN: I'm not sure. Maybe they get a free trip to wherever. Anyway, so here's former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: I'm here in North Dakota today because I want North Dakota's vote. You've got delegates. If you give me your delegates, the likelihood is that I'm going to become the nominee.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. I wasn't sure why he was there, but I'm certainly glad he cleared that up for me. All right. Thanks so much for that bit of tape.

Ruben Navarrette, you lead us off, man. Romney - now, we know he's got the loot. He's got the money to campaign hard in all 10 states and...

NAVARRETTE: Right. Yup.

IZRAEL: ...thank God for that. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, will he be able to keep up, though? That's the question.

NAVARRETTE: It's a weird dynamic. We've said this before on this show, but it's a weird dynamic to this race, because I just saw another poll that showed, in an upcoming state, Santorum's in the lead and then likely, on election night, they'll fall behind Mitt Romney and elect him, or vote for him.

It happened in Michigan, where - granted, Rick Santorum kept that very close. He kept that very close in Mitt Romney's home state, and it showed him leading at a time in Arizona, but then Mitt Romney comes to the front.

Here's what's happening. More and more Republicans are falling line behind Mitt Romney. They don't like him. They don't trust him. They can't relate to him. They find him to be, in some cases, dishonest. These are all things that come out in the polling. And yet they really feel that there's a sense of inevitability. He's going to be the nominee, so they fall in behind him.

Where I think Republicans miss it is they think that Mitt Romney really has the best chance to beat Barack Obama, and that's why they're backing Mitt Romney. But nobody who hits at 25 percent of the polls and has a very vibrant, anybody-but-Mitt campaign out there against him sounds to me to be a very strong candidate. So if this is the best they've got, you know, I think President Obama has a lock on reelection.

LOYOLA: Oh, I think that when you got a president who's at a 43 percent approval rating, a lot of people could be a strong candidate against a president with a 43 percent approval rating. If his approval rating - which has been that low for six months now - if it's still that low in six months, the president's in a lot of trouble, no matter who the Republican candidate is.

IZRAEL: I don't know about that, man. This is the ugliest GOP race to the White House I've seen in my lifetime. We got Romney. We got Santorum and Gingrich. These guys are like the Three Stooges. And Ron Paul, he's like the smarter Shemp. He's got the same kind of pocket-hipster constituency.

You know, in my opinion, you know what? None of these mutts can win, yet one of them has to line up to take the hit. You know, they have to be nominated to take the hit, and I think it's - I can't imagine a sadder contest than this, Super Mario. I'm sorry.

NAVARRETTE: And, also, you know - this is Ruben again. The bad news about this is if you are an Obama supporter, if you are in the African-American, Latino community, anywhere, any community, civil libertarians out there, you are - when you're honest - disappointed in his performance. He has failed your community. He has failed his liberal constituencies, one after another.

And so when he's a lock for reelection like this, you don't think he's returning your call now? You just wait till he's reelected. He ain't going to return your call. He ain't going to call you to lunch. He ain't going to pay attention to you. He's going to continue his rightward drift, and it'll be bad for everybody. It's bad for the left, bad for the right and bad for our politics.

LOYOLA: Gracias.

WRIGHT: I have to agree.

IZRAEL: All right. For Colorlines, come on, man. Jump in here.

WRIGHT: I've made the same point, is that, you know, elections are a good thing. Elections are accountability moments, and, you know, for better or worse, we have a two-party system, and if one of those parties is in the disarray that I think it's plain that the Republican Party is in right now, then that's hard to have accountability for either side.

I think what's interesting about the Republican Party is, in their primary, is that there is actually a structural issue, right, that - around the way they have restructured the primary, they wanted to recreate the Clinton-Obama experience that went on for a long time and got a bunch of registered - voters registered, and that generated all this enthusiasm.

But what it's done has created this lengthy race that is, I think, turning off a lot of folks such that even when you have a president that is, in fact, struggling - by all traditional measures would be struggling in an election...

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

WRIGHT: ...isn't because this race is doing more to beat up - for the Republicans to beat up on themselves than anything else.

MARTIN: Let me just throw a couple things in here before we move on. Rick Santorum actually has a big lead in Tennessee. But Newt Gingrich is leading in Georgia, which is his home state. A state he represented as a member of Congress with Santorum in second in Georgia. And just to clarify, President Obama's approval ratings are kind of showing right now between kind of 48 and 53 percent, according to sort of the various polls. So it's interesting and something to keep an eye on.

You know, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Colorline.com's(ph) editorial director Kai Wright, and National Review columnist Mario Loyola. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Well, I don't know quite where to begin with this next topic. It's about a federal judge in Montana who sent an inflammatory email, which was supposed to be a joke about President Obama's momma. Like anybody plays mommas like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Michel, that's kind of deep.

NAVARRETTE: Not good.

MARTIN: Yeah. And I, just to, for people to understand what we're talking about here, I have to read part of the forwarded email. And the other element here is, of course, he forwarded it from his government email account. He's a federal judge. His name is Richard Cebull, United States district judge. And I have to warn the people listening that this is probably offensive to many, many people. But, you know, here it is. Here's the part of the joke that's relevant.

It says a little boy said to his mother: Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white? His mother replied, don't even go there Barack. From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And he starts the email by saying how this touched his heart – how much this warmed his heart and he knows that this would warm you heart too to hear this.

NAVARRETTE: Mm.

MARTIN: After this came to light, he sent an apology and released a letter of apology to the president. And he said, I sincerely and profusely apologize to you and your family for the email I forwarded. I accept full responsibility. I have no one to blame but myself and I can assure you that such action on my part will never happen again. And he says I don't know what else I can do, and he's requested a judicial revenue. Which is interesting to me because, you know, normally when these incidents come to light these people have these fake apologies, oh well, I'm sorry if anybody was offended, that kind of thing and, you know, so none of that in this case.

So I have to ask you guys, you know, what do you think? Do you think that's sort of, what do you think that sort of, what do you think this is all...

IZRAEL: Mm. Well...

LOYOLA: I would say that, you know, let - politics...

MARTIN: Mario? Mm-hmm.

LOYOLA: Yeah. Politics gets really ugly, unfortunately. And, you know, I mean we have to remember the eight years that Bush was president and, you know, the publisher, editor of The New Yorker, I forget which, said, you know, wrote this whole article saying, if it was legal for me to say so I would say that I really, really want to strangle the president to death, you know, and really personal stuff like that.

I mean the judge it was – this joke is a very stupid joke. It's a crude joke. It's not even funny. It shouldn't even really qualify as a joke. It's really just an insult. But, you know, I have to say, I mean most conservatives would probably be appalled by something like this. Most conservatives dislike the president very intensely by this point. He stands for a lot of things that are anathema...

MARTIN: But what does that have to do with his mother? What does that have to do with his mother?

LOYOLA: Nothing. Nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: Nothing.

MARTIN: See that's what my question is if people don't like his politics, what is the deal with all these jokes being circulated - and this is not the only one - and the comments about his mother, his racial heritage and so forth. But people keep telling us oh, it's not about race, it's not about race. Then why are these offensive jokes - alleged jokes...

NAVARRETTE: It's not about race.

WRIGHT: But here's the thing. Michel, I have to say...

MARTIN: But that's my - but if it's not about race then why is the tenor of the kind of comments that seem to be circulating? That's my question. And Kai, you wanted to say something?

WRIGHT: What's most interesting about his apology for it actually is that he fully acknowledges that it's racist. This is in fact racist. But I didn't send it because it was racist. I sent it because it was anti-Obama. And I actually take him at his word on that and I think it's - so one, we have established that Michelle and Barack Obama make a certain strain of white folks crazy, that - we've seen that over and over and over again, right? But there's also this point that the Republican Party doesn't have much else to talk about other than how much it hates Barack Obama. And I think that is part of what Cebull is revealing there is, you know, I just hate the guy and anything that's hateful about him I'm going to send around, you know.

And I think it's more of a statement on what the party has to say, what it doesn't have to say that it is on racism itself.

LOYOLA: I completely disagree with that. I completely disagree with that. If you...

MARTIN: That's Mario. That's Mario Loyola.

LOYOLA: And if you read pages of National Review, Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, we have a legion reasons, a legion of reasons to oppose the president that has to do exclusively with policy, have to do with the vision of government that he has.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

LOYOLA: It has to do with his vision of an unrestrained majority rule, his lack of concern for the Constitution. You know, people who laugh at the, you know, the unconstitutionality of Obamacare. Are you kidding? Those kinds of things generate a lot of opposition among conservatives and that's why conservatives oppose him.

Now this kind of thing is sort of ancillary. It's sort of like, you know, a lot of the conspiracy theories that you hear on the right and on the left. There are people like this that send this kind of stuff around all along the political spectrum and we shouldn't encourage them....

WRIGHT: They're not federal judges.

NAVARRETTE: This is Ruben. This is Ruben.

LOYOLA: Some of them are.

NAVARRETTE: This is Ruben. I think I'm going to say that this is - we're on agreement here. This is an offensive non-funny, you know, non-joke. This is an attack on the president. But more importantly, this is an attack on the president's mother, an attack on a woman, OK? I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea that this is racist. I have no trouble at all saying this is sexist, this is an attack on a woman, this is a clear accusation of alleged promiscuity on the part of this woman. And it is, those are to my mind, the color lines that are drawn here, the lines that are drawn there. I don't think it's about race. I think we have to be careful saying it is because there have been plenty of cases we've talked about it on the show where the attacks on Obama have been about race. And on those days, when we talk about real racism, we have to be careful we haven't overused the phrase.

MARTIN: Let me just, can I just say one thing about this, as the sole woman in the conversation?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I think that the racial element of this is the implication that a white woman would, who, by definition, is an intimate with a black man must have some problem, must be by definition promiscuous. The implication being that consorting with a black man is so beyond pale of appropriateness...

NAVARRETTE: So why isn't that a slam on a white woman?

MARTIN: ...that therefore, I understand that. But it implies that you have so transgressed boundaries that you are now in the realm of something truly distasteful. And I think that that is the racial element of this. And, but again, my question, my press the question on Mario's point, the conservatives say oh, well, George Bush had it worse. I profoundly disagree with that. I think attacks on his intelligence are at a very different level than attacks on his heritage, his mother, the circumstances of his...

IZRAEL: Personal is personal though, right?

LOYOLA: The attacks won't be on...

MARTIN: I will say - let me just clarify - let me just say that I do however, think that there were attacks in the blogosphere on Condoleezza Rice that very often transgressed appropriate boundaries of appropriate discourse.

NAVARRETTE: Definitely. Definitely.

MARTIN: And I can't even, I don't even...

NAVARRETTE: By ugly white liberals...

MARTIN: Exactly. And I just...

NAVARRETTE: ...to me cases of ugly white liberals going...

MARTIN: And I'm not going to repeat it because I think it has transgressed the boundaries of civil discourse that we want to...

NAVARRETTE: You can do a Google search and find that out..

WRIGHT: Whether or not they're liberal or conservative doesn't change the fact of inappropriate conversation.

NAVARRETTE: No question.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Kai Wright, Kai Wright.

WRIGHT: This effort to make it about as well, liberals and conservatives both say racist stuff is beside the point.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: You know, I mean...

LOYOLA: Why?

WRIGHT: It's, because it's not - it's actually not about partisan politics. It's about what's appropriate conversation in public sphere and it's about what's appropriate for politics. And racism and sexism and hate speech isn't amongst them. And it is not in fact, limited to the fringe of the party. It is federal judges, it is candidates for office saying things like this. It is...

IZRAEL: Well, this wasn't a brief. I mean...

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael.

IZRAEL: ...this was a private email. This was a private email and you know what? I'm...

NAVARRETTE: That he forwarded. That he forwarded, right.

IZRAEL: That he forwarded.

NAVARRETTE: He didn't write it.

IZRAEL: But I might go a little left to center here or maybe right of center because, you know, this feels like a lefty media mafia here to me.

MARTIN: Decide.

IZRAEL: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Go ahead.

IZRAEL: And he sent this as a private email. Somebody obviously put this out there to embarrass him. Listen, I don't want to live in an America anymore where people can be removed from their jobs or flogged for an apology for something they say, you know, offhand. You know, he apologized, let him apologize, let us move on.

NAVARRETTE: He didn't say it. Let's be clear. Let's be clear. He didn't say it or write it. He forwarded it. But it's still sophomoric. It still sophomoric but again, my point is there's a difference between sophomoric...

IZRAEL: You know what, when I was a kid they said the same kind of things about, they attacked Jimmy Carter's family too. They attacked his brother. They attacked his mom as a clan of hillbillies.

NAVARRETTE: Oh, sure I hear you. I hear you.

IZRAEL: You know what? It's all just politics.

NAVARRETTE: But we need to be careful.

IZRAEL: Let him apologize and let us move on.

NAVARRETTE: We need to...

LOYOLA: Well - Yeah. I think...

NAVARRETTE: Let's be careful between separating sophomoric and racist. That's all I'm saying. It's not, let's not drop the bomb on this one.

MARTIN: All right. I feel you. Well, I think it's - I appreciate you all. This is a good conversation. I appreciate you all unpacking it in a way that I think people can understand it and talk about it. And I think, so I appreciate all of you for that.

But we are going to move on, just because I'm sorry, we have to talk a little bit about sports. It's the end of an era for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After 14 years and two Super Bowl rings, the Steelers say they are releasing Hines Ward from his contract. He was MVP of Super Bowl XL. I'll just play a clip from that game. It was in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPER BOWL)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And they pitch it to the left and now here's the handoff on the reverse to Antoine Randle El, who is going to throw it down the field. There's a man open. Touchdown, Pittsburgh. Hines Ward. The Steelers score from 43 out on a gadget play that they worked on and practiced on Friday.

MARTIN: Now Jimi Izrael, OK, now I know this is a sensitive topic because you're in Cleveland and the Browns are...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...not fans of the Steelers.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: But you've got to admit that Hines Ward is the man. And I just have to say, you know, where's the loyalty? Why? Why? He says he still has more to give. And I understand that, you know, you have to stay competitive and so forth, but I mean come on. I'm sorry, I'm editorializing.

IZRAEL: Well...

MARTIN: Forgive me. I'll jump down off the soapbox now.

IZRAEL: Yeah. OK. Well, so they're not re-upping him and that is whatever. But, you know, I going to put a different spin on it, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: I'm going to put a different spin. I'm happy for the brother. Not because he's not going to be playing for the Steelers, because that's one thing. But maybe he'll get a chance to ride out into the sunset where you're money style. Look, he's 36. See, he's not a spring chicken. This might be his opportunity to bow out the whole game while it dignity and body intact. You know, maybe evolve into something else, you know, do something. You know...

MARTIN: "Dancing with the Stars."

IZRAEL: Or something. Maybe he'll pick...

MARTIN: Oh, come on. Somebody...

IZRAEL: Maybe he'll pick the red pill and returned to the gridiron matrix but, you know, I hope he makes the choice that's right for him. But I don't know. I mean...

MARTIN: Somebody, somebody back me up, please. No? No? I get no love here? Everybody's like...

WRIGHT: He said he's coming back, though, right? I mean he said, Jimi...

IZRAEL: Of what?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: ...that he is not in fact, going to bow out.

MARTIN: He says he has a lot of football left in him. Kai Wright, do you think that you would sign - if you were a football - I know you're not Mitt Romney. You don't have friends who are football owners or team owners...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...but would you...

WRIGHT: I don't have a couple of Cadillacs, either.

NAVARRETTE: Yes. Some of my best friends.

MARTIN: Would you sign him?

WRIGHT: You know, I have no idea. But I'll say this, I mean I think it's quite a charming story that this guy has given, you know, all of these years to this franchise and he says, you know, even after he's been dumped he's like oh, I'm still going to bleed black and gold. You know, I mean that's all quite charming. You know, actually my question is for the folks who follow sports more closely, why is it – I think what Jimi's saying is unlikely to happen, right? They always keep coming back long past...

IZRAEL: Sadly. Yeah, they do. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So what?

WRIGHT: So why is that?

MARTIN: So what?

WRIGHT: What's that about? I don't know. I mean is it...

MARTIN: Why not? It's their job. what's – Mario?

LOYOLA: Well, I mean I can talk from the...

MARTIN: I know you're go Packers. I know that.

LOYOLA: Yeah. That's what I was going to say. I mean we obviously had the, you know, a bit of a traumatizing end to the great Brett Favre era with the Packers and it had to end some time. It was hard. I think that, you know, I'm very sorry that a lot of the fans look down on him now for the way that he went out. You know, look, Hines Ward is going to spend increasing amounts of time on the sideline. Is that really the career that he and the team want to look forward to in seasons to come? I'm not so sure. I think it's...

MARTIN: Let that man play. I don't care.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You're going to have to carry me out feet first. That's what's up. I'm sorry.

WRIGHT: You like the smile.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I'm trying not to make it about me.

Mario Loyola is director of...

NAVARRETTE: Obviously.

MARTIN: ...Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a think tank focused on the impact of federal policy on the states. And as he mentioned, he's a columnist for the National Review. He was here in Washington, D.C. this week. Thanks for coming.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for The Washington Post Writers Group, Latino magazine and PJ Media. He was with us from San Diego. And Kai Wright is editorial director of Colorlines.com. That's a daily news site covering race, politics and culture. He was with us from our bureau in New York. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

LOYOLA: (Unintelligible).

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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