Shop Talk: Teenage Pranks And Politics?

Host Michel Martin and the Barbershop guys weigh in on President Obama's support for gay marriage and how it might affect voters in November. They also discuss new questions about Republican Mitt Romney and whether he bullied a gay prep school classmate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we head into the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are freelance journalist Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. In New York City, Kai Wright, the editorial director of Colorlines.com. Joining us here in Washington, D.C., R. Clarke Cooper. He heads the Log Cabin Republicans. That's an organization that works within the Republican Party to advocate for gays and lesbians. He's also an Army Reserve Captain. And, also here in D.C., Corey Dade, NPR digital news correspondent.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

KAI WRIGHT: What's up, man?

R. CLARKE COOPER: Hoo-ah.

COREY DADE, BYLINE: Wonderful.

IZRAEL: Come on. What's going on?

MARTIN: He threw a hoo-ah. I don't know what else you need but a hoo-ah.

IZRAEL: I guess I'll take it. Right? Hoo-ah.

MARTIN: All right. There you go.

IZRAEL: All right. So let's get things started. You know, this week, President Obama became the first sitting American president to openly support gay marriage. Backers call it a historic moment, a civil rights victory for LGBT Americans, while critics say President Obama is inconsistent and this is political maneuvering.

Guys, you know what? I want to know what you think of this. R. Clarke Cooper. Coop.

COOPER: Hey.

IZRAEL: You get the floor. You get the floor first. You're a conservative gay man who's been critical of Obama in the past and even on this issue and even about this announcement. OK. Why?

COOPER: Well, let's start with the first things first. It was the right thing to say, so I want to make that clear. What the president said was the right thing to say. It is the position that has raised the bar on this discussion on the freedom to marry. So where the critique comes in is on the timing of the rollout and some have called it - is it a distraction from the major issue of the economy? Also, was it tied - was it a calculated rollout tied to money that was waiting in the wings that came forth this week in places like Hollywood?

So, but the bottom line here is that it has raised the bar as far as marriage is concerned and so the president's personal announcement to support the freedom to marry certainly has helped change the climate at a certain level. So the favorability...

MARTIN: Wait. Can I just ask this? I mean, you must be in advanced yoga because the positions that you are twisting into here fascinate. This is your statement on this the day of the announcement: The president has chosen today, when LGBT Americans are mourning the passage of Amendment One - you're talking about North Carolina...

COOPER: North Carolina. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to add to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. You said, to finally speak up for marriage equality is offensive and callous. That's what you said on the day of the announcement. And then your candidate, Mitt Romney, came out saying he doesn't even support civil unions.

COOPER: And I'm not defending...

MARTIN: So...

COOPER: By the way, I'm not defending Governor Romney on his position on this, so you know, Log Cabin Republicans actively advocates for the freedom to marry. In fact, we work with that organization on Capitol Hill to repeal DOMA, which is the Defense of Marriage Act, which is the current federal statute out there that does not allow for same-sex recognition inter-statewide.

So - yeah. So we're sharp on - it's not - we're equal opportunity here.

MARTIN: I guess what I'm asking is you're saying he's being cynical, but aren't you?

COOPER: Am I being cynical? No.

MARTIN: Yeah, I mean...

COOPER: This is - we're probably being the most honest on this issue. We were probably one of the few of LGBT groups that said, hey, good. But hold on. Look at how this came. So, if one looks back at where we were several days ago, prior to the announcement, it wasn't just Log Cabin that was concerned about this. So, like I said, good that he said it. Good on him. It's raised the bar on the issue and it has - we now have the most senior voice in the United States and, in many cases, the world, having a head of government take such a position is helpful on the macro.

But one does look - if you look at the broader picture on the issues, was this a shiny distraction?

IZRAEL: Well, OK. So that criticism doesn't hold water for me, so if he wasn't going to do it - you know, I mean, so if not now, when? I mean, what date would you have had him do it on? I mean what? Come on, that whole criticism is just...

MARTIN: After Mitt Romney.

IZRAEL: No. Yeah. Well, right.

DADE: You're going to ask (unintelligible) that question.

MARTIN: Kai Wright. Kai Wright's written a lot about this or you've written a lot about sexual orientation in politics. We've talked about it before. Kai, where are you on this?

WRIGHT: The timing was perfect, I think, in terms of following the North Carolina vote to come out and make a moral stance, but I think, actually, two bigger things have gotten lost quickly in the sort of debate about the partisan politics of it. One is returning to a core principal here. The biggest enemy that gay and lesbian people have always faced is the shame and fear that keeps both us and our supporters in the closet.

And what Obama did this week was stand up and say, listen. I'm coming out as believing that my gay friends' relationships have the same dignity as my own and that's a really important and historic thing.

And the second thing that's gotten lost is, you know, as we've started to debate, well, how will African-Americans react to this, is we're losing - and I think we saw this in North Carolina - we're losing the understanding that there's been a huge shift in the black community over the last 10 or 15 years that has mirrored the shift in America overall around not, again, not just same-sex marriage but the rights and the dignity of gay people overall. And there have been a huge number of black faith leaders - in North Carolina, one of the most outspoken - most aggressive spokespeople for gay relationships was the Reverend William Barber who led the NAACP chapter there, and was eloquent in his defense of the rights of gay and lesbian people. And so we're seeing a sea change and the president standing up I think is going to have a huge effect amongst African-Americans who are debating the issue to say oh, well maybe I should think differently about this. And so I think...

IZRAEL: You know what? I...

WRIGHT: Go ahead.

IZRAEL: Kai...

MARTIN: Jimi.

IZRAEL: You know, I've never given that trope of the, you know, of the homophobic black American much of anything. I think what's happening in the black church is the black church is getting younger.

WRIGHT: That's right.

IZRAEL: And, you know, the younger the people are, you know, their minds are open. I mean we've all got a gay homeboy. I mean even your girlfriend might have a girlfriend, so nobody's tripping about it anymore. It's not no big deal.

WRIGHT: It's really right, Jimi. It's really right.

IZRAEL: So, you know what I'm saying? So it's like the older heads, the older heads are still thumping that Bible and they're believing what their great-grandmother's grandmother told him but the young heads are getting down with Nicki Minaj and, you know, the whole bounce movement in New Orleans. You know, and even house music is coming back. So it's like no one's tripping.

WRIGHT: That's right. That's right.

COOPER: That generational shift is applicable in the Republican Party. So the younger the Republican the more supportive they are in gay rights.

MARTIN: Well, the other thing that always fascinates me is that people associate this issue with African-Americans being African-Americans, but is the issue of among committed churchgoers with a conservative Christian stance? Because it's like, you know...

WRIGHT: Well, and Michel, the polling supports that.

IZRAEL: That's all it is.

MARTIN: Well let - actually, Corey...

WRIGHT: The polling absolutely supports that.

MARTIN: Well, Corey's been checking on this. Corey Dade, you want to talk about it?

DADE: Sure, Michel. I think what we're talking about is sort of a little bit of an overstatement of black's opposition to gay marriage. I think Kai referenced it a bit. A Pew Research poll showed that black opposition has dropped to 49 percent from 67 percent in eight years. But the more significant thing is the biggest jump, the biggest decline has happened since 2008. So what's happened since 2008? They elected a black president; the emergence of young voters who are more open to gay rights; the expansion of domestic partner benefits in the workplace; a modest increase in civil unions in certain jurisdictions; and then a weakening of the Christian conservative movement within the GOP. So all these things become this pot that stirs and influences opinion.

As far as African-Americans are concerned, the bigger question is whether or not Obama's position now changes the discourse among black families that still are not en masse embracing their homosexual family members. That's the bigger issue.

MARTIN: But why wouldn't it in the same...

IZRAEL: Who are these black people, Corey?

MARTIN: Hold on. Hold on. Jimi, let me just jump in. But why wouldn't it in the same way that when George W. Bush as president stood up and went to a mosque in the wake of 9/11 and said these people are not our enemy. Terrorism is our enemy, not Islam. And that had an effect on the opinion of white evangelical Christians among whom he was a thought leader.

DADE: Right.

MARTIN: Why wouldn't it have the same effect among African-Americans?

DADE: Well, I think - I'll point you to something I wrote yesterday. There's a study that a political scientist did in Chicago. They took - it was essentially a phone-banking sort of poll experiment where they had callers call black people and ask them to support gay marriage. The callers who were black got much more of a positive response from the respondents because it was one of their own community asking them to change their mind about an issue. So it could really happen with Obama stepping forward.

MARTIN: Finally, Clarke, could I just ask you finally, do you think though, that this might have the equal effect of galvanizing support among white conservative Christians who are not in love with Obama anyway, and galvanizing support around Mitt Romney, to whom they have been lukewarm?

COOPER: That has yet to remain to be seen. In fact, that's something all GOP strategists are looking at right now. What it has done is it has defined or will determine definition within the GOP on where Republican lawmakers and policymakers lay. So, you know, this includes fellow GOP strategist Steve Schmidt. He and I have talked about this. John Weaver is - we're at the point now - we are at a crossroads in the GOP where people are either going to stand up for some sort of legal recognition of same-sex couples, be it civil unions, like Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey, or full marriage equality, like chairman of the House foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, or what we've seen now where Governor Romney's come out in a position of opposition. And people are going to have to pick a side and the chips will fall where they fall and that will determine - be determined by the electorate as well as voting Republicans. But this is - the lines are being defined right now.

MARTIN: We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with R. Clarke Cooper of the Log Cabin Republicans. That's who was talking just now. Kai Wright of Colorlines.com is with us from New York. Corey Dade is our NPR Digital correspondent. And, of course, Jimi Izrael is with us.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Oh, back to me. All right, I'm down with that.

MARTIN: Well, you know what? Actually, I'm sorry. I know you wanted to talk about - Jimi, I know you wanted to talk about this article in the Post...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: That ran as a front page piece about speaking of GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney saying that he actually led an attack on a fellow student when he was in prep school, where he, you know, helped, you know, pinned the kid down and cut off his hair because the kid had died his hair blond. And Mitt Romney says he doesn't remember the incident. But we'll just play a short clip. He talked to FOX News about this. Here it is.

MITT ROMNEY: I certainly don't believe that I or - I can't speak for other people, of course - but thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest things from our minds back in the 1960s.

MARTIN: But Jimi, you know, you've talked a lot about the things that you think should be on bounds and out of bounds, but the Post made the argument that, you know, that his supporters, Mitt Romney's supporters have cited his teenage years to sort of say what a sense of humor he has and he's not the stiff that he appears. So in that context do you think it's fair?

IZRAEL: Oh yeah?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Do you think it's fair or not?

IZRAEL: I do not think it's fair. I think it's biting him both ways but I don't think it's fair. I, you know, none of us are fully formed people as teenagers, you know, I'm not convinced you can glean anything about the feelings of an adult from the actions of a child. I just, nah. No. I'm not saying - I mean what do you say? You know, so I mean it's not like he was setting cats on fire, you know, which is like, you know, I mean that's psychotic. I mean he would...

WRIGHT: Oh, I'd say this was psychotic too if he did it. But I agree it was...

IZRAEL: I was going to say - go ahead, go ahead Kai.

DADE: Hold up.

WRIGHT: But I would agree that in 1965...

COOPER: I don't know, Jimi. He's...

IZRAEL: This is certainly psychotic but yeah, I mean he...

COOPER: You're presuming it did occur because...

MARTIN: That's Clarke.

COOPER: ...the family members of the alleged victim and classmates have come out later this week saying that the story is bunk. So as we say in military intelligence, verify, verify, verify, which is supposedly the rule of journalism as well.

MARTIN: But they also reported, these...

IZRAEL: Ooh.

MARTIN: ...that some of these gentlemen who came forward who say they were part of this incident...

WRIGHT: Right.

MARTIN: ...say that they were so troubled by it that even as adults they felt a need to apologize to this gentleman. And these people are on the record. So I don't know, I wasn't there.

DADE: And one of them actually did.

COOPER: And now this family is putting out a statement today. So...

WRIGHT: Well, but actually taking...

MARTIN: Kai?

WRIGHT: I think again, so there's a larger issue...

MARTIN: You know, so, anyway, just to tie a bow on it, Clarke, you don't buy it. You just don't buy it. You don't think it happened.

COOPER: I just say that all the data points aren't in and that's why I said this - I think there was a leaping before looking on publication at this point. So, you know, I think the jury is out on this. And frankly, I go back to the earlier point is that look, teenagers are teenagers and, you know, I mean do I need to declare on here or maybe I should, you know, I played mailbox baseball, and if you don't know what that is yeah, you didn't grow up in a rural area.

IZRAEL: Whoa.

COOPER: Yeah, right?

IZRAEL: I didn't.

COOPER: So, you know, I mean...

IZRAEL: You got me on that one, brother.

MARTIN: Is that the same as like Halloween, trick-or-treating on your elevator, on your elevator line?

COOPER: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COOPER: No. Not at all. No.

MARTIN: No. Sorry.

COOPER: No.

MARTIN: Never mind. OK. Fine.

IZRAEL: Yeah, I don't know what that's about.

MARTIN: But Kai, why don't you tie a bow on it? You think it is fair.

WRIGHT: But, you know, none of the - no. Actually I agree with Jimi that, you know, what happened in high school was a long time ago and whether it did or did not happen, you know, it was a long time ago. The question for Governor Romney is how is he as an adult on respecting people who don't look like him and act like him. And, you know, and I think again, there's a larger issue here that's actually revealed in Mitt Romney's comment about it. And, you know, and he said well, we certainly weren't thinking - if we did that kind of thing, we certainly weren't thinking about his sexuality. And I think this is really important because we see today in the bullying that we have such - with such a problem that we now has been going on since 1965. The issue is perceived. The issue is that people who look different, who are perceived to be gay, who are perceived to be transgender, who are perceived to be something, get violently bullied and it's a big deal and it remains a big deal today, you know. And so whatever we think about whether Mitt Romney did it or not, I hope that it's another reminder of the fact that this isn't the same as mailbox baseball. This isn't just teenagers being teenagers. It's a big deal when kids get bullied.

MARTIN: Well, let me just point out that the family member said who, the surviving family member, the gentleman who was the victim of this attack passed away. The family member issued a statement saying that she did not hear this from her brother, so not that it never happened but that her brother never told her about this. And, you know, I don't know. You know, I...

IZRAEL: So there was no Rosebud moment.

MARTIN: I don't know. I had a brother too and he didn't tell me everything that happened in his life. I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I wasn't there. I don't know. I will say though, that if you don't mind my saying, that as a person who attended boarding school and was later on the board of one, I mean there has been a sea change in attitude about hazing of any stripe directed at any person. I mean it was common back in the day and it was never thought of as a problem and the attitude about it has changed, you know, 360 degrees since that time about the kind of behavior that was tolerated among peers. And that doesn't justify it. I'm just saying that, you know, it's just, it's so hard to say the kind of behavior that people thought was normal back then is just not at all acceptable today that adults turned a blind eye to. That's all I have to say from my personal experience.

COOPER: And as Kai said earlier, I mean as Kai said earlier, looking at where we are now it's to say that bullying is not acceptable. And this is why you have across-the-board, including great conservatives like Governor Huckabee have on his show to talk about the issue of bullying. So this is something that has been brought forward as far as what is unacceptable, it's a no-go zone.

MARTIN: Corey, I'll give you the final word and since you're a digital media guy. Is this hot on the block? Is this story hot on the block or not?

DADE: It is hot. Anything involving Mitt Romney is going to be hot. Anything that would sort of suggest that he was homophobic or that he gay-bashed is going to be hot. The question is whether or not it has any legs and it probably doesn't beyond the moment.

MARTIN: Jimi, does it have legs or not? Jimi?

IZRAEL: Nah. Nope. None.

MARTIN: But we know not with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean it's just, there's no there there. There's no there there. I mean he might have egged his neighbors too. I mean, I don't know, there's just no there there.

Kai, there there or no there?

WRIGHT: It's a bad week for Romney for this to come out, you know, but in the end this election is going to be about the economy not any of this stuff.

MARTIN: Kai Wright is editorial director at Colorlines.com. That's a daily news site covering the race, politics and culture. He was with us from our bureau in New York. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University, with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Corey Dade is a correspondent for NPR's Digital News. He was here in Washington, D.C., along with R. Clarke Cooper, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. That's a group that advocates for gays and lesbians and their issues within the Republican Party. He's a captain in the Army Reserve as well. Thank you all so much for joining us in his.

DADE: Thank you.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

COOPER: Hoo-ah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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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