President Laughs With Leno, AIG Anger Persists

The guys in this week's Barbershop — Jimi Izrael, Mark Anthony Neal, Eugene Wang and Geoffrey Cooper — comb through the latest headlines and give their take on the fury over AIG and recent actions by President Obama, including his recent appearance on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

Copyright © 2009 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. It's time for a special visit to the Barber Shop here in Durham, North Carolina. We're here on the campus of North Carolina's Central University, broadcasting from WNCU.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, author and professor Mark Anthony Neal. We're also joined by student newspaper editors Eugene Wang and Geoffrey Cooper. Eugene is attending Duke, and Geoffrey is a student at Central.

I may jump in here or there, but for now, take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Thanks, Michel. Yo, fellows, what's up, man? Welcome to the shop. How are we doing out there?

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Black Popular Culture, Duke University; Author): Good.

Mr. EUGENE WANG (Student Newspaper Editor): Doing good, man.

Mr. GEOFFREY COOPER (Student Newspaper Editor): How's it going, Jimi?

Mr. IZRAEL: Geno, Coop, Mark, thanks so much for coming out. You know what? AIG execs, they're accepting the bailout with one hand, and they're giving out bonuses with another. And nobody seems to know anything, you know, although we have information that this happened on Bush's watch. Way back in September, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi say don't look at me. The CEO compensation issues were completely resisted by the Bush administration, she says, and so we are sweeping up after them. That's what she told the Washington Post. Mark, Doctor, my man, what's the deal? What happened?

Prof. NEAL: Yeah, I can't imagine what AIG is thinking about. You know, on the one hand, this is a chance - most Americans don't understand how the whole process of bonuses even work, you know, unless they're watching "Christmas Vacation," you know, and that great scene with Chevy Chase when he realizes he doesn't get his Christmas bonus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Prof. NEAL: I mean, that's what folks think about. In terms of Wall Street, I mean, it's an incredible thing. And you know, there's two things here. You know, how can they take handouts and then justify taking, you know, sending out bonuses for basically not doing their jobs very well? You know, and then there's what Senator - Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, you know, in terms of putting language in the legislation that protected bonuses, you know, as if there wasn't going to be some sort of populist pushback.

You know, folks from the ground who are like, you know, I can't feed my kids. You know, I'm doing four of five jobs, and you're telling me they're getting, you know, million-dollar bonuses for doing stuff that basically has put me in this position? You know, I feel bad for Obama in some regards.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what the rub of this is, it's completely legal, I mean, because it was - the language has always been there. So this is kind of the case. I'm thinking, Geno, this is kind of a case of, you know, haste makes waste. How do you read it?

Mr. WANG: Well, to me it seems like President Bush - even though this might have happened on President Bush's watch, I think it's certainly the fact that Obama administration does have some culpability in this fact, because if look at it, Treasury Secretary Geithner was the New York Fed governor at the time, and so he was certainly involved in his whole bailout package. And also, Federal Reserve Governor Ben Bernanke was also governor at the same time, as well.

So you certainly have an issue where the Obama administration is culpable in this fact, even though it may have been happening on the Bush administration's watch. So…

MARTIN: Now, I don't get that. How would they have known? Just being a Fed governor doesn't mean you're privy to every detail of these packages. It just doesn't make any sense to me.

Mr. WANG: I think even though you may not be aware of every single detail of it, I think you're still involved in the process and you're still involved in the negotiations to craft these bailout packages.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what scares me about this, Coop? You know, President Obama was talking this stuff like he didn't want to govern in anger, but yet, you know, he's talking about bringing the hammer on these cats by taxing them into the stone age. It's like, you know, it's really scary - it's scary to live in a country where if you do something you're within your rights to be doing, whether it's kind of shady or not, you know, the government could come from behind you with the tax black jack and hit you over the head. What's up with that?

Mr. COOPER: A lot of citizens, a lot of blue collar workers are losing their jobs. A lot of people are not getting the things that they need to survive on a daily basis to provide for their families. And just hearing this, it outrages people. And so a lot of people are going to act in backlash, and they're going to say some things and they're going to want to have some results. So, I mean, is the 90 percent tax going to work? I'm not sure. But this is - I think this is a clear indication that he's really trying to take this economy. He's really trying to move his economic plan into the right direction. He's trying to really make some things stick. And so the whole thing with this - I just hope that some sort of resolution comes into hand as soon as possible.

MARTIN: Yeah, I think that Jimi's making an important point. There's a saying in Washington, the scandal in Washington is never what's illegal, it's what's legal. But the argument that's being made on the other side is these are contracts. These were negotiated, probably they shouldn't have been. But then to turn around and abrogate those contracts - I mean, just the other side, just to be devil's advocate, the other side of this argument is these people created these complex instruments, and so they're the ones who know how to unravel them.

Prof. NEAL: I mean, that's almost the reason why Obama has to make a moral appeal. You know, how can you accept this money?

Mr. IZRAEL: It's funny that the good doctor's looking for a moral appeal from Washington, DC. Good luck with that one, bro. You hold your breath waiting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what's interesting - but your boy Obama, he descended from Air Force One last night to be the first sitting president to do late night TV. Now, you know, of course Franklin Roosevelt, he had his fireside chat where he bored the masses by reading from the funny paper often, you know which is -hoo, I'm glad Obama wasn't in for that. But yo, we got a clip of him last night, right?

MARTIN: Yeah, we do. We do. I'd be curious about what people think about the president's decision to be on Leno. But yeah, here's a little short clip from the president on Jay Leno last night. Here it is.

(Soundbite of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno")

President BARACK OBAMA: Yeah. I ran for president because I thought we needed big changes. And I do think, in Washington, it's a little bit like "American Idol," except everybody is Simon Cowell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAY LENO (Comedian, Talk Show Host): Wow.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow, thanks for that, Michel. You know, I said this on theroot.com today that it was a good show, and - but, you know, there's a reason why the president doesn't do late night TV. Late night TV is for Gallagher. It's not for the president of the United States, first of all. And secondly, he had a little bit of a gaffe when he was talking about his bowling prowess, and he disparaged people with disabilities, and let me just say, that's not a good look. Dr. Mark?

Prof. NEAL: No, it wasn't a good look. I mean, I think it was a great idea for him to go on. I think he represents a new generation of how, you know, politicians engage with popular culture. I mean, that was part of the reason why he got elected. So in some ways it makes perfect sense that he would go on Jay Leno. There's a whole lot of focus now on Jay Leno because his show is going to be closing down. So it's a lot of - everybody's watching him at this particular moment. So if he really wants to get at that audience that's not watching network news, that's not watching CNN or some of these other networks, it made sense for him to get to the people that way.

Mr. IZRAEL: What's next man? "Dancing with the Stars"? I mean, I don't want a president that's on late night TV, man. Can I get some dignity in the office, please? Coop, help me out here, man.

Mr. COOPER: Well, I mean, most people, for real, a lot of individuals out there, they don't take a lot of time to take a look at the news or read a newspaper as they should. So sometimes like outlets like these, when they're up late night and when they should kind of tune to NBC or ABC for late-night news, they turning to Jay Leno or turning to Jimmy Fallon. So I think that was a good move in terms of Obama getting his point across about some of the things that he wants to implement.

Mr. WANG: Yeah, I would just echo the same kind of thing.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, Geno.

Mr. WANG: All right, because in my mind, a lot of the people who are up late at night, they're watching "Daily Show." If you have young people and you want to get out and reach out to them and speak to them about the news, you are not going to go on your typical CNN, Anderson Cooper-type TV shows. You're going to want to go on these more younger type TV shows and reach out to them that way. And so Obama this week, after being on ESPN yesterday to talk about his bracket, I think it followed in line for him to be on Jay Leno and speak out to the young crowd about these pressing issues.

MARTIN: Did you guys watch it?

Prof. NEAL: I did.

Mr. WANG: Yes.

MARTIN: You all watched it. You all three did. Well, there you go. There you go.

Mr. IZRAEL: I wanted to see if he was going to play saxophone or something, you know? I wondered if he was going to go in there and do like a Clinton, or he's going to like breakdancing.

MARTIN: What do you make - wait a minute - wait Jimi, here you go.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Uh-oh. I'm in trouble now.

MARTIN: Well, Jimi you made the point that that - well, always. But, I mean, you made the point that the - you know, that President Roosevelt gave those fireside chats. To me, I think, how is this different?

Mr. IZRAEL: It isn't different, but I wouldn't have advised Frankie to do that. If I were advising him…

MARTIN: Yes, with your long history of advising heads of state.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Advising presidents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's really great. That and, you know, $3 will get you a Starbuck's. Okay. I just have to jump in for a second. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jimi Izrael, Mark Anthony Neal, Eugene Wang, and Geoffrey Cooper in the Barber Shop, a special Barber Shop from Durham, North Carolina.

And speaking of which, I do want to ask our North Carolinians - you're all connected to institutions that were very much in the news almost just three years ago with this situation involving the Duke lacrosse team and this party that they had off campus where things turned out very badly, where these two -what's the word - exotic dancers were hired to appear, and the thing - it did not end well. There were allegations of rape, which were later, you know, thrown out. But it was a big, big deal at the time. And I wanted to ask you, has - is it still something that marks relations between the two campuses? Is it still something that people talk about, Professor Neal? Do people still talk about it?

Prof. NEAL: Well, I think the event forced the two campuses to really think about better relations, and better relations with the city of Durham. The irony of this is that I think Durham, the community in itself, has long gotten over some of the damage that was done around that particular incident. It's really been on the national level, I mean, it's really the national press that made this a big story, you know, as folks were trying to heal here in Durham. And it was really from outsiders who were putting all kinds of pressure. You know. I'm a member of the illustrious Duke 88 faculty, you know, who signed the statement trying to make some sort of commentary for more sensitivity around the issue for all involved. And, you know, and many of us got hate mail and stuff well in, you know, two three years later. Still occasionally, we'll get email.

MARTIN: Saying what?

Prof. NEAL: Saying things like you know, how dare you falsely accuse the Duke Lacrosse players, raising questions about our qualifications as scholars, about the qualifications of the field of African-American studies or women's studies…

MARTIN: But I have to say, I don't know - I mean, I think - like often such people want to make it a media issue, but I know, living in Washington, DC, I saw people walking around with T-shirts saying I'm a member of the Duke lacrosse team. What was that about? You know, and clearly, they didn't play lacrosse. So clearly, the story sort of touched…

Prof. NEAL: Touched a nerve.

MARTIN: …a nerve. But do you think the local community has kind of moved past that? I guess you're moving past it. You can't live in that fever pitch…

Prof. NEAL: I think so. I mean, as someone (unintelligible) local community that, you know, to kind of hold on to that, I mean I think Durham has moved forward even if folks nationally haven't moved forward around on that issue.

MARTIN: Geoff, I wanted to ask you because you were, what, a freshman. You would have been a freshman at Central when all this was going on. What about you?

Mr. COOPER: Well, it definitely was a very dark time for both campuses. We were just trying to really understand the entire situation at the time. I know me, as a freshman, when I heard about it, I was in utter disbelief because it was just like, you know, this is something that I know is not going to be healthy for the both of our campuses. And when I started to learn more and educate myself more on the matter, you know, it was just kind of trying to figure out exactly where does - both universities go here from there? Like, what's next? Like how do we mend this broken bridge? And I think that the efforts now - I know there's been a lot of efforts for the past three years trying to mend those relations between both universities. And I think students have kind of moved on, but it still sits in the back of some minds, some of the minds of those students that were there during the time.

MARTIN: Gene, what about you? You were a freshman. You would have been on your way here. You would have been a high school senior, so, you know, this would be something you would be thinking about as you were getting ready to come here. What about you? Does it still resonate for you in any way?

Mr. WANG: Duke students now, I don't feel that they think of it as that big of an issue. Certainly after the whole event kind of erupted, there were a lot of groups that kind of got together and started talking about these issues of race and class and culture and how they could mend town-gown relationships. Three years later, has there been much of a change? I can't necessarily say that I've seen much of a change, but I think that discussions have occurred. And just like to go back on what Coop just said, I think that the community has been thinking about it a lot, and it does kind of underlie some of the relationships that have developed over the past three years. But is it as front and center? Certainly not.

MARTIN: No. All right, well, thanks for that. Thanks for that. Jimi, you had something else.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yo.

MARTIN: Gee. Let's see. Its March. We're in North Carolina. Hm.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: March Madness, I think. Who do you all like? Or is that a stupid question? Michel you've spoken on it quite a bit. And we have a clip, right?

MARTIN: Well, no. It's not about me. It's that, you know, your fan-in-chief -your fan-in-chief…

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: …you now, has had something say about this. His comments were not universally applauded. Let me just give you a short clip about when he was picking his brackets, which he actually had the nerve to do publicly. Now there's a better man than I am. The man has - he's got - he's a bold man to put his brackets up there on live television. But here it is. Here's a short clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "SportsCenter")

Pres. OBAMA: The Tar Heels that are watching, I picked you all last year. You let me down. This year, don't embarrass me in front of the nation, all right? I'm counting on you. I've still got those sneakers you guys gave me.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks. Thanks for that, Michel. Well, at least he's got the sneakers, right? Yo, I was pulling for Akron, but my dudes let me down. But my Vikings, I still think are in it to win it. So Cleveland State, go get it. Fellas - okay, I'm sorry. Don't laugh. Don't laugh. That's not funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Too late.

Mr. IZRAEL: Geno, Geno, what's up man? What's up with March Madness, man? I mean, we know who you like, but, I mean, let's be realistic. Who's going all the way?

Mr. WANG: Well, in my bracket, I'll just kind of put it out there. I've got Pitt beating Louisville in the final. So tonight's a pretty big night for me, because I get to see both of them play. So, as for Obama's speaking about UNC getting into the final and winning it, I'm not quite sure I feel about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. So he better hold up to them. I'm not really feeling them.

Mr. WANG: (unintelligible) to be honest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Cool.

Mr. WANG: As much as I love the guy, I'm not - yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh yeah, well, actually I am a Duke fan. I've been a Duke's fan since the 99 squad. I actually have my bracket going with Pittsburgh, Carolina and Connecticut and Louisville in the - all in the final four. Then I got Louisville and Carolina matching up with each other in the championship. And just because I'm not really fond of UNC, I got Louisville taking it all, pretty much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Mark.

Prof. NEAL: You know, I'm deep here in ACC country, but, you know, I got New York roots, I'm a Big East guy, you know, so I'm really happy about Pitt and Connecticut and Louisville. But, you know, for real, Louisville ain't real Big East for me. You know, they're not old school. They're newbies on the block. So I'm actually pulling for Pittsburgh, you know. Pittsburgh's actually, you know, the number one choice for my 10-year-old daughter who's doing a little bracket thing in her class. You know, so I'm actually pulling for Pittsburgh, who I've actually been a fan of for a long time.

Mr. IZRAEL: That's cool. Well, like I said, I'm heaving my ball from half court, and I'm hopeful that, you know, my Vikings - I want a surprise. You know, I want a Cinderella story. But, you know, in the real world, I'm - you know, Louisville's going to take it. Sorry. Sorry. Louisville's the one.

Mr. COOPER: Got two Louisvilles and two Pitts.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right, right, right. And you know what? I think that's a wrap, fellas. Thank you so much for coming inside the shop. I have to pass the ball to the woman of the house, Michel Martin.

MARTIN: I'm going to be the tie breaker. I'm going with Pitt.

(Soundbite of groaning)

Mr. IZRAEL: What's up with that?

MARTIN: All the good will I've built up has just gone out of the window, right? Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for theroot.com and Tv1.online. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University. He's an author and writes a blog called New Black Man. He was kind enough to join me at the studios at WNCU. Eugene Wang is a junior at Duke University. He's the managing editor of The Chronicle. And Geoffrey Cooper is a senior at North Carolina Central University, and he is the editor-in-chief of the Campus Echo, and they joined us from the studios at Duke. Gentlemen, thank you all.

Mr. WANG: Thank you.

Prof. NEAL: Thank you.

Mr. COOPER: Thank you

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. But before we go, we want to say thank you to our colleagues who hosted and produced the programs NEWS AND NOTES and DAY TO DAY. Today will mark the final broadcasts for both. These are dedicated journalists who logged thousands of hours in editorial meetings, making phone call after phone call to find the right guests, writing scripts and responding to listener feedback. They love their work. We thank them for their work, and we wish them all the best.

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