MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, when you imagine Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, you probably think about warm, fuzzy characters, but those two, along with their friends, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman, show their tough side in the new film "Rise of the Guardians." We'll talk with the director of the film and how he's making history in his own way. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.
But first, it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on the week's news with a panel of women writers, journalists and commentators.
Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, chief international correspondent with CNBC. She is with us from their studios in New Jersey. Here in our studios in Washington, D.C., Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That's a conservative libertarian commentary and news website. Also with us in Washington is Melinda Henneberger. She writes about politics at The Washington Post and oversees their "She the People" blog.
Welcome back, ladies. Thanks for joining us.
MICHELLE CARUSO-CABRERA: Thank you.
BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: You know, we kind of realized after the fact that our conversation today is really about women in power, so we want to start with Susan Rice. She is, of course, the United Nations ambassador. She's rumored to be a top candidate to replace Hillary Clinton, who's made it very clear she only wants to serve one term as secretary of State.
But Rice is still being asked to answer questions - and I'm putting that nicely - about the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya this September. Some Republican lawmakers have criticized Rice for her public comments, initially saying that it was a demonstration that got out of control that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. That's the first diplomat killed at his post in - American diplomat killed at his post in some 30 years, and reports later reveal it was a planned terrorist attack.
Now, Ambassador Rice says that her comments were based on preliminary information provided by the intelligence community, but her critics, even after meeting with her, say that they are unsatisfied. And here's a quote from Republican Senator Lindsey - from South Carolina - Lindsey Graham on Tuesday after he met with Rice, also with the CIA director, Michael Morell. Here is Lindsey Graham.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Bottom line, I'm more disturbed now than I was before that the 16 September explanation about how four Americans died in Benghazi, Libya by Ambassador Rice, I think, does not do justice to the reality at the time and in hindsight clearly was completely wrong.
MARTIN: I'm going to start by asking each of you if the criticism of Rice is fair. Melinda, I'll start with you.
MELINDA HENNEBERGER: I don't think so, and it's highly ironic that this woman who has, throughout her career, when she's been criticized has been criticized for being too passionate, speaking her mind rather too plainly, is now being criticized for sticking to the talking point she was handed.
So for one thing, she is under consideration for the State Department, but does now not run it, and I don't understand why she's being held accountable for whatever cock-up happened at State that led to this horrible tragedy. And she was given these talking points and stuck to them in trying to be the good soldier, and I think I would really question - you know, there's been some talk, some reporting in our paper from Dana Milbank on bad blood from the past between John McCain and some saucy remarks made by Susan Rice. I don't know if this is about their prior relationship, but it doesn't seem to track to me.
MARTIN: OK. Bridget Johnson, fair or unfair?
JOHNSON: I would say that the Benghazi part of the criticism - you know, if I was looking at the general criticism of whether or not she was fit to be secretary of State, I definitely have arguments about whether or not her performance as even ambassador has been exemplary.
As far as bringing the Benghazi element, though, in connection with her potential nomination for this position, it's fair to a point and then there are some unfair things about it. And some of those would be that, you know, it's striking at Obama through his proxy, basically. It's striking at a proxy of Obama for being unquestioning, but presidents pick people who do their bidding. You know, it's the concern that - is that she did the bidding with intentional falsehoods to somehow benefit her boss's campaign, and that's a lot of what the legislators here are reaching at.
MARTIN: Yeah. Because, by that standard, if giving wrong information based on reports from the intelligence community makes you unfit for office, shouldn't the entire administration of George W. Bush have resigned, given that no weapons of mass destruction, which is the pretext for the Iraq War were wrong - was wrong as opposed to criminally wrong? I mean, shouldn't they have all resigned based on that standard?
JOHNSON: Well, and if she's a scapegoat as they suspect, admittedly, then dig further. You know, if she is - if she's put out there as a scapegoat and the Republicans are just flogging the scapegoat, then, you know, I think Democrats and Republicans both need to ask why the administration would choose her, to put her out there and say this when - when, as was noted, you know, it was not her department.
MARTIN: Michelle, what's your take on this?
CARUSO-CABRERA: Yeah. I don't think anybody should be surprised that one of the most horrific events in modern diplomatic history would be so scrutinized and questioned. She put her (technical difficulties) To me it makes complete sense that she would be asked very, very tough questions. And to the previous respondents, I agree with her in terms of this idea that you've got to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. OK. You put her forward. She did your bidding. She gave you the talking points, but ultimately, what's the answer here? And in the future, will we get truth from this person?
MARTIN: So what direction do you feel the questioning - Michelle, since you're saying it's appropriate for tough questions to be asked, what direction should they be taking, if not this direction?
CARUSO-CABRERA: Well, I think the direction is fine. We're trying to get to the answer of what happened, who told her what when, why she repeated them. Was she sure? Why wasn't she sure? I mean there's a lot of stuff that we just don't know.
MARTIN: Melinda, what about the - what about the - the other question I wanted to ask about is what about the - you know, Bridget raised the point that this is a proxy for the president, and then when the president, at his post-, you know, election press conference, strongly defended her, a lot of people raised questions about that, said, you know what? It's the subordinate's job to take the hit for the principal. How do you interpret that?
HENNEBERGER: His reaction was very interesting and seemed to me to be sort of a protective big brother kind of reaction. It was a stronger reaction than we typically see from him, very personal, very heated, and to me very appealing when he said come after me, don't come after her. But yet, you know, if she's going to be our secretary of State, she doesn't really need a guy, even if that guy happens to be the president of the United States, saying, you know, don't you dare criticize her.
It doesn't make any sense to me, this idea that she would be a scapegoat, given that she's a friend of the president. She's someone in whom he has a lot of trust. He apparently wants to make her secretary of State.
The other thing about his reaction is that he - I think it was politically unwise to have this sort of overheated response because he really boxed himself in. He'd better want to pick Susan Rice as his secretary of State because now he's left himself really no other option than to do that or he looks like he's caving.
MARTIN: Interesting. Bridget Johnson, what do you make about that? Because on the one hand, you're saying this is a proxy fight. I mean people are picking on her as a way to get to him. In a way he's answering that directly, saying you want to pick on somebody, pick on me. But now, as Melinda pointed out, people look at his reaction and saying, you know, she doesn't need you to, you know, pick her fights for her or fight for her or - what do you make of that?
JOHNSON: Right. And I totally agree that Obama's boxed himself in now. It's like poor John Kerry. John Kerry was so close to the secretary of State spot that he really wanted. An interesting thing on the Hill is that all these legislators who you would have thought would have opposed a Kerry nomination because of climate change, etc., are like, oh no, we'd vote him in any day, you know, but Susan Rice we have objections to.
The impassioned response that you saw from Obama, I think, was partly the president's personal offense at - and his challenging tone - came from knowing that it was striking at Obama through his proxy. He's emboldened. He just got elected to a second term, so - yeah - I don't think that he's going to let up on this nomination.
MARTIN: Michelle, what do you think of this? I mean there are others who would argue that he's laying down a marker. So he was criticized by progressives in the first term for not being forceful enough and defending his positions and now, you know, there are some who are saying he's just laying down a marker and saying to people, you know, bring it, to use an overworked phrase. Michelle, how do you interpret that?
CARUSO-CABRERA: You know, I mean I agree with you. That's exactly what he did. He did lay a marker. I don't know if he realized what he was getting into when he did that and, you know, I just think back to the whole situation with Colin Powell, to your reference earlier about the Bush Administration and him testifying about the weapons of mass destruction and just how in the long term that was so detrimental to a man who should have had a wonderful reputation for the rest of his life because he was so good at what he did. And these moments can be very, very bad for a person and stay with him for a very long time, and President Obama's going to have to live with the fact that his proxy went out on a limb for him and did this.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are having our weekly Beauty Shop roundtable. It's our panel of women commentators and journalists. We're speaking with Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor at P.J. Media. Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, that's CNBC's chief international correspondent. That's who was speaking just now. And Washington Post political writer Melinda Henneberger.
You know, Melinda, you made the point that Susan Rice didn't run the State Department.
HENNEBERGER: That's right.
MARTIN: Hillary Clinton does run the State Department, and she is pretty clear that she's ready to move on; she's ready to do something else. She's expected to step down, and people are wondering what is next for her. And there have been some really interesting stories, I think, about - you know, in your paper, among others, you know, about her and her career, and what happens next.
When you look at the whole - sort of totality of it, I mean, the stories have actually sparked other stories that say that, you know, she doesn't deserve all this, you know, hero worship that is directed at her. Others say she most certainly does. She's certainly one of the most iconic and interesting figures in American politics today, you know.
You write the "She the People" blog. When you think about Hillary Clinton as a political figure, what do you think we should be thinking about? How would you direct our thinking about her?
HENNEBERGER: Her arc is so interesting. I can't think of another like it. And I've been covering her since she was first lady, and I think we should - it's hard, almost, now to remember how loathed she was, even by many liberals; I mean, how deep the Clinton fatigue was, when they left town.
When she, you know, was exploring running for president, I talked to so many women who just felt that Bill was going to be this, you know, stone around her neck that - oh, please, let's have something different. We were not, for a number of reasons, ready for Hillary Clinton, in a way. And now, she put her boots on. She did that job; she did it well; and we're ready for Hillary Clinton, after all these years. And I think it's pretty clear to me - and I think to most people - that she's going up into the hills to plot her return.
MARTIN: OK. Michelle, what do you take - what do you think we should be thinking about, when we think about Hillary Clinton's career?
CARUSO-CABRERA: Well, you should know that I have a deep conflict of interest about Hillary Clinton because she went to Wellesley, as did I; and I have always wanted the first woman president to have gone to Wellesley. I was deeply disappointed she didn't get the nomination, and I want her to run. I think she would be terrific - and she's not my politics, by the way. So I think she's done a phenomenal job thus far, and I think she'd be a great president.
MARTIN: Bridget Johnson, what do you make of the Hillary phenomenon? What is your sense of what she means as a political figure - particularly as a female political figure, I have to say.
JOHNSON: Right. Even back in '08, when you had a lot of personal emotions on the right about the Democratic potentials for the presidential nomination, if you put a lot of those emotions aside, people were still saying that Hillary was the more capable person to take on the job and I thought that was a really interesting phenomenon to even seem on the right. I don't know how much of that was driven by distaste of Obama.
But it's clear that, you know, throughout the past four years, you know, Hillary's really asserted herself and you kind of see how, during the Clinton Administration when she was the wife who was cheated on, you know, the quote, unquote, "poor spouse," but it's almost like she and Bill forged this political partnership out of the marriage and I think almost - Bill's almost more than made up for what he did in the support that he's shown to Hillary and her career. And I think that that could potentially take her all the way to the White House.
MARTIN: Is she a role model? Or is her career - and her trajectory - so "sui generis" that you can't really draw any other conclusion from it?
JOHNSON: I mean, I personally would consider her a role model just for the fact that, you know, she can march into a lot of these patriarchal societies as secretary of State and, you know, really assert herself; and just kind of leave her gender at the door, almost, and make these leaders who would otherwise be really sexist towards having to do diplomatic deals with a woman...
MARTIN: Well, I mean, in fairness, though, she wasn't the first. I mean, Madeleine Albright and then, you know, Condoleezza Rice. I mean, people pretty much should be used to a woman stepping off that plane by now.
JOHNSON: Right. You know, so I generally, you know, have extra admiration, you know, for a woman who'd take on that job, you know, especially with the way a lot of societies are now. But I think that just, all in all, you know, people understand that - you know, she knows that her star still is on the rise. She knows she doesn't need to stay in this administration four more years. I've heard rumblings since 2009, that she wanted to get out at the end of the term, so it's...
MARTIN: Well, she was persuaded - I mean, she's made it very clear, and all the reporting has made it very clear, she had to be persuaded to take that job; in no small part because she was tired. It was a very grueling and long campaign, and she was tired. Melinda, you said - I'm interested in your take on whether you think that she's a role model or not. Is her...
HENNEBERGER: I do.
MARTIN: ...career so distinctive that...
HENNEBERGER: I think it's both. I think she's...
MARTIN: ...never to be repeated.
HENNEBERGER: ...a role model, and her career is so distinctive. The Clintons in - I mean, when again will we see their like? But you know, what Hillary and her husband have done is keep showing up, and keep doing the work. And again, you know, I think there's a lot that we can all learn from that.
MARTIN: Like what?
HENNEBERGER: Even - that you just keep doing it. I mean, when people said he should leave his job; when people said, you know, she should leave the marriage, that they should sort of cut and run. And they didn't, and things swung back around. And I think that one thing that Hillary has done, is also proved the importance of relationships. You know why I think Susan Rice is getting - back to that - a lot of this criticism instead of the questions being directed at Hillary Clinton, who's actually running the State Department, is that she has relationships with people on the Hill. People who worked with Hillary when she was in the Senate have a great deal of respect for her, even those across the aisle. They don't have that same relationship with Susan Rice. And I think that's why she's been able to opt out of a lot of this trouble.
MARTIN: Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, I'm going to give you the last word on this.
CARUSO-CABRERA: Yeah. I think she's definitely a role model. And the whole point of role models is that eventually, their career is no longer distinctive because other people do it. What I find so fascinating about the Clintons - and particularly, Hillary - for women, is I think she really becomes a Rorschach about how we feel about our personal relationships because we know now that - if you've seen this PBS biopic about the Clintons - we know now that Hillary married Bill knowing that he was a guy who was likely a womanizer. And yet she chose it. She stayed with him through all of this. And I think we all kind of look at ourselves and say, what would we have done - right? And these two powerful people moving forward through life despite this obvious issue, is just something that I think women, at least, think about a lot.
MARTIN: And just by way of - I'm not going to ask you to predict, but my guess is - you know what? She really - we should take her at her word. I think she really does want to watch those decorating shows. That's what she says she wants to do...
MARTIN: ...because she is a girl's girl, and she likes to decorate. That's it.
JOHNSON: You can have her on the Beauty Shop.
MARTIN: That's right. Let's hope. Fingers crossed. Michelle Caruso-Cabrera is CNBC's chief international correspondent. She joined us from their newsroom in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Here in Washington, D.C., Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C., editor for P.J. Media, the conservative libertarian commentary and news website. And Melinda Henneberger, political writer for The Washington Post, and editor of the "She the People" blog. Ladies, thank you so much.
HENNEBERGER: Thanks so much.
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