Candidates' Jabs: Funny Or Flat?

In theBarbershop, the guys discuss President Obama and Mitt Romney's comedic commentary at a famed dinner Thursday night. Host Michel Martin is joined by writer Jimi Izrael; civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar; National Review columnist Mario Loyola and health care consultant Neil Minkoff.

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. Coming up, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormon church, changes its rules to allow younger women to participate in missions. We'll focus on what this might mean for the future of women in the faith. That's in just a few minutes.

But 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 the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. They're here in Washington, D.C. With us from Boston, Neil Minkoff. He is a health care consultant. He's trained as a doctor. He's also a contributor to that venerable conservative magazine, the National Review. And from Austin, Mario Loyola of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a think tank that promotes limited government. He's also a contributor to the National Review.

Take it away, Jimi.

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

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

NEIL MINKOFF: (Unintelligible)

MARIO LOYOLA: Doing good.

IZRAEL: Hey, Super Mario, my man, good to have you in. Listen, let's just...

LOYOLA: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Let's jump right in. You know, after taking shots at each other at the debate on Tuesday, President Obama and Republican president candidate Mitt Romney, they made fun of themselves at the Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York City last night. Michel, we've got some tape. Yeah?

MARTIN: Yes, we do. The foundation has raised millions of dollars for causes. The dinners bring together the top personalities in politics and in election years that means the White House candidates, so Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney were both keynote speakers, and here's a clip of the president.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Ultimately, though, tonight's not about the disagreements Governor Romney and I may have. It's what we have in common, beginning with our unusual names. Actually, Mitt is his middle name. I wish I could use my middle name.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Of course, that middle name is Hussein. Not to be outdone, former Governor Romney took the mic. This is some of his remarks.

MITT ROMNEY: A campaign can require a lot of wardrobe changes. We - blue jeans in the morning, perhaps, a suit for a lunch fundraiser, sport coat for dinner, but it's nice to finally relax and to wear what Ann and I wear around the house.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Of course, talking about the fact that the dinner is white tie, super, super formal, super fancy.

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. You know, me personally - I think it's kind of sad that, you know, that this is where President Obama and Mitt Romney are. You know, you were the - you know, President Obama's the prom king and he's, like, battling snaps back and forth with the president of the investors' club. You know, it's really sad that this is where the political discourse is anymore. You know, it's really kind of a battle of like - of snaps, and I'm sad about that. You know, I'm happy to be American, but I want to hear about the issues. I don't want to hear them snap back and forth. You know, next thing you know, your mama jokes are going to start flying and then it's all over.

You know, Super Mario, Mario Loyola...

MARTIN: Some might say snaps are better than bullets, which is how it is in some places.

IZRAEL: OK. I'll take it. Mario Loyola, you know, both these guys have been known to kill a joke and not always in a good way. What about last night?

LOYOLA: Yeah. I thought they were both very funny last night, actually, and - you know, and Obama was certainly much more self-deprecating than I think he's ever been in those - in that kind of a format. Romney, on the other hand, was not as self-deprecating as Obama and on the contrary put in a lot of politically substantive digs. I mean, you know, the joke about the FEC requires Romney to take credit for stuff that Biden says from now on and, you know, so little time, so much to redistribute. This message brought to you by the letter O and the number 16 trillion.

I mean those were funny jokes, but they hit at, you know, really substantive issues of the campaign, so I thought that was very interesting.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Culture - I'm sorry. Country club humor always resonates with me. Arsalan Iftikhar.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: A-Train, you're the Obama supporter in the Shop. Should your boy stick up for his day job? I mean, he should get in there and do his thing. Yeah?

IFTIKHAR: Well, no. I mean, I think here at the Alfred Smith Dinner, I thought - I found it kind of refreshing. You know, here, I think, it gave the candidates - both candidates an opportunity to once again humanize themself, you know, in light of two, you know, very contentious debates, a very contentious presidential election where, you know, with the negative campaigning on both sides. You know, it was good to see both of them, you know, be able to take some self-deprecating shots at themselves, you know, merely a few weeks away from the election.

MARTIN: Well, after the - particularly after the Tuesday night debate, you know, I'm curious because we had a group of, you know, women commentators in earlier in the week and some of them were - there was a lot of talk about whether the tone of the Tuesday night debate was just too nasty and particularly for women who generally don't, as a group - I mean obviously this is, you know, stereotyping and generalizing - don't love that kind of getting in your face and like to physically challenge. So I don't know, Arsalan. What'd you think?

IFTIKHAR: Well, let me first close my binder full of women before I answer that question.

IZRAEL: Yeah. You know, isn't that funny?

IFTIKHAR: It was - you know, I think that, obviously, the second debate - you know, President Obama brought his A game, and like he said at the Smith Dinner last night, you know, he was well rested after taking a nap from the first debate. I think the third debate, especially on foreign policy, in Florida, you know, next week is going to really be the game changer either way.

IZRAEL: Neil Minkoff - Dr. Neil, you know, it's funny because, you know, reggae artist Shabba Ranks has his trailer load of girls and, you know, Mitt Romney has his binders of women. You know, but his comment on Tuesday, you know...

MINKOFF: (Unintelligible) you know how many hot women I own?

IZRAEL: Right. I mean folks were laughing at Romney, but not with him. Could showing that he has a sense of humor help him at the polls or not really?

MINKOFF: Well, you know, I saw them last night in the white tie and tails and I think that what really - at the risk of being sophomoric, what could have really blown minds and impressions on both sides is if the two of them had agreed to act out the "Putting on the Ritz" scene from "Young Frankenstein" in the overly formal tails.

So - yeah. I mean I thought it was good; there were a few jokes and people made laughs. I agree with Mario. I was a little surprised at how pointed some of the jokes were, but I'm not really sure anybody except people like us care that much and I think that people are already moving on and starting to worry about the next debate.

IZRAEL: I hope so. But I guess the question is, who would have been Frankenstein?

MINKOFF: I'm not answering that. I could only get in trouble. They should have taken turns. They can take turns.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Putting on the Ritz. Shout out to Gene Wilder.

MARTIN: Well, I think the argument is - and you know, a lot of the sort of the New York heavyweights are at this event, obviously, which is a Catholic event and the - I think, is it Archbishop Timothy Dolan, or is he a cardinal?

IFTIKHAR: I think he's a cardinal.

MARTIN: Cardinal. Cardinal Dolan, his eminence, said that he feels that this is an important tradition because it demonstrates that at the end of the day, you know, we're all Americans and that we can actually be civil, even in the midst of a heated contest like this. And you can sort of see where people could interpret this as being trivial and I understand - I think you get the impression - you feel it gets trivial.

It's interesting to me that one of the criticisms that Governor Romney was making was that during - while the United Nations General Assembly was meeting in New York, that the president met - took some time and went over and spoke to a television show, a popular television show, "The View."

So I'm always, you know, wondering - so how come - you know, that - so is it trivial when you just talk to a group of women, but it's not trivial when you talk to a group of men in white tie? Well, there were women there at this dinner too. I mean so I'm always - this whole question of how you balance your time when you're in the middle of, you know, doing all the business of government and state is how we sort of decide what's OK to do, is always a tricky thing for campaigns.

But as I said, this is a tradition. People - you know, some people say, well, you know, it shows the strength of a country that, you know - that, you know, the country will function, that we're not, you know, literally coming to blows, which is the case in some places, like I said.

IZRAEL: You know what? Less snaps, more policy rap.

MARTIN: All right. I feel you. OK. Here it is. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having our weekly visit to the Barber Shop with writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, National Review columnist Mario Loyola and Neil Minkoff, health care consultant, also a National Review contributor.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Well, guys, election day is coming up November 6th, two days before my birthday. Hint, hint. But some voters...

MARTIN: What do you want? Extra ballots?

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Voters in Maricopa County, Arizona show - might show up a couple of days late. The Spanish language information on their registration said November 8. Ay, caramba, Michel. What happened?

MARTIN: Well, you know, I don't know what happened, but Maricopa County is the largest in Arizona, more than three million people. A spokesperson for the county's Department of Elections told reporters it was an honest mistake, that it had been corrected, but this comes at a time when, you know, there's a very contentious relationship between one of the key figures there.

County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been investigated by the Department of Justice for discriminating against, you know, Latinos. I think he's become a national figure, in part for his extreme sort of aggressive stance toward illegal immigration, toward all kinds of issues. A lot of people think he kind of exceeds the scope of his authority in a number of areas, so that's why this raises eyebrows.

You know, along with the fact that there has been this big - so this big partisan debate, right, about the whole question of, you know, a number of governors, particularly Republican governors - have been pushing for these restrictions on or tightening up on the - you know, the mechanisms of voting, claiming that there's voter fraud. Right? Demanding more ID and so forth, that there's voter fraud. And other groups - civil rights groups have been pushing back, saying that there is no evidence of voter fraud and this is just a partisan attempt to intimidate people from voting who Republicans think aren't going to vote for them. So that's been one of the sub-themes of this election. I think that's one reason why this story has generated the attention that it has.

IZRAEL: Arpaio - he didn't catch any charges.

MARTIN: No, not yet. No. He's not...

IZRAEL: OK.

MARTIN: I don't mean to say not yet by saying - I mean, there have not been charges filed, but he has been investigated, and even people within Arizona have called for this. This is not necessarily the Feds picking on him. There are people within the state who've said that he's gone too far.

IZRAEL: OK. Well, Arsalan Iftikhar...

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: You're the civil rights attorney up in here. What do you think?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, first of all, I think that, you know, context needs to be had here. You know, out of the two million documents that went out, according to most reports, only about 50 of them that were given out over the counter had this erroneous information. So I don't know if that's the main story, but I think the context of where the story occurred, Maricopa County, Arizona - this was not in Peoria, Illinois. This was not in Boca Raton, Florida. This was in the hot - the ground zero, essentially, of the immigration debate today.

As you said, Michel, centering around Sheriff Joe Arpaio, as you mentioned, who is not only being sued in a class action lawsuit by the ACLU and the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, but also by the Department of Justice for potential civil rights violations, racial profiling and discrimination against the Latino community.

And so, you know, had this occurred in Peoria, Illinois, I think it would have been a non-story. I think it is a non-story, but I think it brings a lot of focus back on immigration and Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County.

IZRAEL: Thank you. Mario Loyola - Super Mario, you know, you don't pop your collar up in here like that, but as it turns out, you're a J.D. You're a lawyer, you know, so wait a second. Is this a case or is this just a typo? You call it.

LOYOLA: Yeah. I remember reading a James Bond novel when I was in high school that had three chapters. The first one was "Happenstance," the second one was "Coincidence" and the third one was "Enemy Action." I think that that's - you know, this is sort of like getting struck by lightning twice. It's a very strange coincidence that this would have happened in Maricopa County, like Arsalan says, instead of any other number - any other place it could have happened.

But you know, it's 50 cards that were handed out. It's certainly not - I can't believe that this was intentional. What would the upside be?

IZRAEL: I love a good Ian Fleming reference, man. Thanks for that.

MARTIN: But it's like - it's like when you go to a store - right - and the person behind the counter is always giving you the wrong change, but it's always in their favor. Right? The first time they don't give you the right change, you go, oh, they just didn't get their math right. You know, they need to go back to, you know, school or something like that. But when it's always in the favor of the house, then you say to yourself, OK, OK, what's up with this? I mean, I think that's kind of...

IZRAEL: I think that was a "Seinfeld" episode.

MARTIN: Everything's been a "Seinfeld" episode.

IZRAEL: Right. Dr. Neil, if this happened somewhere else, would it even - would it even be a story?

MINKOFF: Well, it was a story when the first lady gave the wrong date out a couple of months ago. I mean that made - the first lady was giving a speech and she went the other direction. She said vote a couple of days earlier than what the election was - I think the third or the second instead of the sixth. And that raised a few eyebrows at the time, not so much about concerns about malfeasance, but just - oh, look at this. Look how easy it is to get the date wrong.

I certainly wasn't expecting a "Goldfinger" reference in this discussion, but the thing that was - you know, I mean, look, I have spent a lot of time working at a lot of complex systems and I've learned that it's much easier to be incompetent than to be evil.

IZRAEL: Oh. Mr. Bond, we expect you to die. Arsalan, go ahead. Go ahead, man.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I think it is important to keep in mind that, again, you know, obviously in context of the greater immigration debate, but also in context of the larger sort of voter ID debate also. You know, we had the Republican chair in Pennsylvania who was caught on camera saying that, you know, we passed the voter ID law to - in Pennsylvania to help Mitt Romney win.

And so, you know, I think that that's why I think people might be a little more hypersensitive to it.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, I think the issue here is, you know, there was a federal commission on election reform that was co-chaired by Jim Baker and Jimmy Carter and they found that there was very little evidence of either voter fraud or voter intimidation that was, sort of, intentional - but that the issue here is that people now have a perception - they have a suspicion that the system isn't fair, and that's really the issue. When you have a lack of confidence in something, that really becomes the problem.

IZRAEL: You mean the system is not...

MARTIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: ...fair? Clutch the pearls.

MARTIN: I know. Right.

LOYOLA: Yeah. It's a big trouble in paradise. I mean...

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's keep it going. You know, with news about Lance Armstrong not living as strong as he used to. Charges of doping dogged the cyclist for years, but this summer - oh man, they cost him his titles and now they're hitting closer to his pockets. Man, Michel, he must be half nuts about this. Right?

MARTIN: Well, you know, we don't have a lot of time left and to talk about something that's this complicated and difficult, I mean the question is - the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released more details of its case against him, so he stepped down from this monster cancer charity, Livestrong. I guess the question I have for each of you is, does this really tarnish his legacy? In that area - sure. In cycling - yeah. But in his efforts to fight cancer, does it completely change your perception of him and the work that they're doing, Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: You know, Lance Armstrong is a global brand and I think what he is banking on is that that global brand will outlive a lot of, you know, the stuff that we're seeing, not only in cycling but in virtually all professional sports today of the steroid era.

You know, what I always like to keep in mind is that, yeah, you know, he - his seven Tour de France victories are tarnished, but then he used that in order to raise 500 billion - that's with a B, children - money, dollars for cancer. I mean, that is - that's more than most people would ever do, and so I don't know. I think Lance is banking on it and let's see if he'll be able to ride away into the sunset.

MARTIN: What about Neil, since you're our health care guy here. He says he's still going to stay on the board. I don't know. What do you think about that as a person in the health care field? Does it...

MINKOFF: Yeah. I mean I think that the - look, a lot of people have been outed as juicers in all different kinds of sports and very few of them have paid a tremendous price, Barry Bonds being the exception to that rule, probably. You know, A-Rod is A-Rod and Big Papi is Big Papi and they're still chugging along.

I think the problem comes that part of being the big cancer survivor story was becoming transcending sport to become a hero, and I think it's hard to be a hero and an inspiration while breaking the rules. And I think that's the part that kind of feels wrong to a lot of people.

IZRAEL: I'm sorry. Did he admit guilt? I mean...

MARTIN: Never.

IZRAEL: Is that - are we taking this...

MINKOFF: He has not.

IZRAEL: No. This isn't an admission of guilt. I think this is brave and I think him stepping down is brave. You know, it's kind of like - it's kind of like the hiker, Aron Ralston, who had to chop off his arm in order - so he could survive. You know, I think Lance is just going to have to take that hit, you know, so that his organization can survive, you know, so the bigger picture can go on.

You know, he's - this isn't an admission of guilt. Sorry.

MARTIN: It's interesting. Interesting. All right. Sorry, Mario. I have to leave you out on this one. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. They were both here in Washington, D.C. Mario Loyola is the director of the Center for 10th Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a think tank focused on the impact of federal policy on states. He joined us from Austin. Neil Minkoff is trained as a doctor. He's now a health care consultant. He's also a contributor to the National Review, with us from Boston.

Gentlemen, thank you so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

MINKOFF: Chop, chop.

IZRAEL: Yep-yep.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.