Gingrich And Sharpton: Unlikely Pair Go On Tour

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Host Scott Simon speaks with Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Reverend Al Sharpton about President Obama's health care speech to Congress, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst and their upcoming education reform tour. The duo has joined forces with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to push cities to fix failing schools. The tour will make stops in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Baltimore.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Two major domestic policies were on President Obama's agenda this week. Of course, he addressed a joint session of Congress on Wednesday trying to build support for an overhaul of the nation's health care system. A day before that, he spoke to school students across the country, emphasizing the virtues of a quality education and personal discipline.

He's getting help on that front from what might seem like an unlikely alliance: the Reverend Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich. Reverend Sharpton, who's run for president as a Democrat, and Mr. Gingrich, who was a Republican speaker of the House, met at the White House this spring on the anniversary of the Brown versus Board of Education decision to throw their support behind public education reform. The two men are about to begin a multi-city tour hosted by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

They join us now to talk about that and some of the week's major headlines. The Reverend Sharpton in New York and Newt Gingrich in Washington. Gentlemen, thanks very much for being with us.

Former Representative NEWT GINGRICH (Republican, Georgia): It's great to be with you and it's great to have a chance to be back with Reverend Sharpton talking about this very, very important topic.

Reverend AL SHARPTON: Thank you for having us on.

SIMON: Reverend Sharpton, let me begin with you - and if you could follow up, Speaker - how did the two of you, how were you brought together for this venture?

Rev. SHARPTON: Well, you know, last year, early '08, I became very concerned as head of National Action Network about the inequality in education and lack of choice. And Speaker Gingrich invited me to address his group at the Republican convention. And I'm sure he didn't know what to expect. I definitely didn't know what to expect. But I got up and spoke about how I think our country needs to come together to not only close the race gap in education, but the education gap and how everyone needs to be accountable. And we were going to Washington to deal with the anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education. I wanted him to come and speak.

And it was the president who said, you know, you guys ought to go on the road and really talk about this challenge what's going on. And that's where the tour idea started, and the 29th of September we are on the road.

SIMON: Speaker Gingrich, what do you see is important?

Rep. GINGRICH: Well, let's see, first of all, I was really attracted to working with Reverend Sharpton because he took the position that education is the number one civil right of the 21st century. Without education, you can't have a decent job, you can't be an effective citizen. You really are crippled in your ability to be an American.

I thought he was exactly right. He showed great courage in raising questions about how we reform education. So, we decided talking with President Obama, talking with Secretary Arne Duncan, that while we disagree about some things -I, for example, I favor the right to a voucher or what I would call a Pell grant for K through 12 - but we all agree that we want accountability, we want transparency, we want parents to have the right to choose.

The president has courageously come out for unlimited charter schools in every state. And that's a very big step forward to having a more competitive and more accountable education system.

SIMON: Let me follow up on that, because President Obama and Arne Duncan - who has a track record of supporting charter schools in Chicago - that drives a lot of teachers unions nuts, doesn't it, Reverend Sharpton?

Rev. SHARPTON: Yes and no. I mean, when it first happened, like, in New York, the unions were against it. Now, the union has three charter schools. If having charter schools - as I've come out and said I support, as President Obama does - helps to create the competitiveness and innovation that helps educate students, then that is the bottom line.

And I think that, though I may not agree with vouchers - and Speaker Gingrich does - if we can deal with the common area of what works, that's the end goal.

SIMON: Can we talk a little events of the week with you two gentlemen?

Rep. GINGRICH: Well, we probably can't stop you. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right. Let me begin with you, Speaker Gingrich. President Obama delivered a speech laying out some of the ideas on health care overhaul this week. Do you think he advanced his case?

Rep. GINGRICH: Well, I think he's restarted the conversation to some degree, and I think it depends on how serious he is about some of his ideas. If he's serious about requiring that the new government plans only pay for legal American citizens and legal residents who have visas and work permits and are here legally, I think he'd find plenty of votes in favor of that.

It depends in part on whether Speaker Pelosi is willing to reopen the bill in the House and have an honest, open bipartisan effort, or whether it was just a nice speech leading back to the machine trying to ram through what they wrote before the August break.

SIMON: What did you think of Representative Joe Wilson shouting, you lie, at the president?

Rep. GINGRICH: Well, I thought it was inappropriate. But I also understand that, frankly, he lost his temper because he saw such a huge gap between the fact of what's in the House Democratic bill and what the president was saying. I presided for four years over joint sessions of Congress with President Clinton.

I absolutely expected, even in the most difficult periods, that the House would have decorum. Joint sessions are rare experiences, where the entire country comes together to hear the elected head of the United States - not to hear a partisan speech, not to hear a campaign speech. And we owe the country a certain level of dignity in that setting.

SIMON: We should note that Representative Wilson apologized and President Obama has accepted it. Reverend Sharpton, do you have a different reaction?

Rev. SHARPTON: Well, I mean, I thought what he said was offensive to all Americans. It insulted the chamber. You know, as an old protestor, you suffer the consequences of a protest, because that's what he ended up doing no matter how much he was justified. He should have been removed, in my opinion, from the chamber.

SIMON: Speaker Gingrich, do you get the impression that the country has time to concentrate on education reform, between the economy, between health care overhaul, for that matter, debate over commitment in Afghanistan?

Rep. GINGRICH: I think that when you're talking about our children and our grandchildren, you're talking about their very future, you're talking about the essential reforms for us to be competitive in the world market. You're talking about the changes we need for national security. We have to find the time to focus on education reform. And I think there should be a sense of urgency in getting this done, and it does relate directly to the economy.

SIMON: Well, could I get you to follow-up on that, Reverend Sharpton?

Rev. SHARPTON: I think that the speaker is exactly right on that. I think that's why the drama of having people that don't agree, like Speaker Gingrich and I joining Secretary Duncan, is important so people understand the urgency of the matter. We are discussing education like it is an option. It is not an option. You can't deal with the economy without dealing with education. Even the stimulus plan put billions of dollars in education.

But if Secretary Duncan can't reform education, we're throwing good money behind bad money. This discussion must take place. It must take place now. And people that don't come together on anything else are coming together to say, we're going to do what must be done as responsible adults to deal with education in this country.

SIMON: Reverend Sharpton, is president Obama - to be serious about this issue -going to have to challenge some traditional supporters of the Democratic Party - I mean, the teachers union and teachers, educators. As much as if he's serious about tort reform, he's going to have to challenge the interest of some trial lawyers, who I believe have been the biggest single group of contributors to the Democratic Party.

Rev. SHARPTON: I think the president has already shown that he would challenge some traditional supporters. And I think that some of the Republican leadership has shown they'll have to challenge some of their traditional support. It has not worked. We cannot be loyal to things that do not work. Look at the results.

And I think when the president came out and said what he said in the areas of charter schools, in the areas of education reform and accountability of teachers and principals and others, some people did not like it. He said it when he was running. This is not about whether you get traditional allies angry. Who is your ally if they can sit by and watch, in some cities, two-thirds of your children dropping out of school?

That's not an ally, and we're going to challenge those allies as we further this discussion.

SIMON: The Reverend Al Sharpton, speaking with us from New York. Thanks very much.

Rev. SHARPTON: Thank you.

SIMON: And speaking with us from his office in Washington, former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Rep. GINGRICH: Thank you very much.

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