Did Whitney Houston Tell All On 'Oprah'?

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In this week's visit to the Barbershop guest host Mandalit del Barco discusses racism and the White House, Whitney Houston's appearance on the season opener of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and President Obama's comments on Kanye West. Joining her are Jimi Izrael, freelance journalist for TheRoot.com; Arsalan Iftikhar, civil rights attorney and the founder of themuslimguy.com; Lester Spence, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor.


I'm Mandalit Del Barco, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time now 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 their chairs for a shape-up this week, we have freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, Johns Hopkins University political science professor Lester Spence and NPR's own political editor Ken Rudin. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Journalist): Hey, Mandy, welcome to the shop.

DEL BARCO: Oh, no, not Mandy. I'm sorry. Anything but Mandy, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You can't hold me. You stop me from shaking, but then you take me away, oh Mandy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Na, na, na.

RUDIN: Her Del Barco is worse than her del bito.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: What it is, for another session of the shop. How we doing?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Attorney): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. LESTER SPENCE (Political Science Professor, Johns Hopkins University): (Unintelligible).

KEN RUDIN: Doing good.

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay, so check this out. Congress is back in session, and it's all about health care. The latest development was Montana Senator Max Baucus unveiling a long-awaited new bill. Now, no surprise, it's getting no love from the GOP.

RUDIN: Well, the funny thing, Jimi, is that Max Baucus is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. This is the bill that everybody was waiting for for the longest time. It was supposed to be with a bipartisan effort. Once upon a time, Max Baucus headed up the Gang of Six, but when Baucus unveiled his plan this week, he basically was the Gang of One. He had no Republican support. The Republicans said it was too expensive, and Democrats were not too crazy about it because it didn't have the public option.

But he did say that there will be revisions made. There will be amendments made. So what Max Baucus offered this week will not be the final product.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. I mean, a lot of people are looking at this, and they're saying it's the best thing they've seen come down the pike, but this is before the Finance Committee gets a hold of it, right?

RUDIN: Right, absolutely.

Mr. IZRAEL: L-Spence, what do you say, good dog?

Mr. SPENCE: Well, I think that one of the challenges they have from the jump is that when you frame the issue as one of cost rather than investment, it skews it rightward anyway, but then when you have the GOP, and they've indicated from the onset of the Obama presidency that they're not really willing to support anything he does, it just makes it really, really difficult.

So you have a framing issue that skews the bill to the right, but then the right themselves aren't willing to make any suggestions that make the bill palatable to them. So then the left ends up being upset, the right kind of gets what they want, but the people end up being left out.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what? There's also these questions about who regulates what and how that still loom really large in this conversation. A-Train, what's interesting to me is that press secretary Robert Gibbs, he called this an important building block. Do you concur? Of course you do. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, why'd you ask the question, if you didn't want the answer, Jimi?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: No, go ahead, bro. I'm kidding, kidding, kidding.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, what's most interesting to me is, you know, you have these Blue Dog Democrats like Max Baucus and conservative Democrats in the House who are essentially log-jamming, you know, this entire health care debate. I mean, you know, Rahm Emanuel, Dick Durbin, the majority whip in the House, you know, they've not done a good job in terms of whipping together votes. That's why they haven't gotten the Republican support that they've needed. The Republicans have no incentive, you know, to be a part of this.

RUDIN: To amplify on what Lester was just saying before, the reason we spend so much time focusing on Max Baucus' committee and Max Baucus' plan because we thought this was going to be the instrument that would attract Republican support.

We know the ones that are passing in the House are completely Democrat-only with no Republican input. So we thought Baucus' thing would be important because it would have Republican support, and now that that has no Republican support, we're back to where we started.

Mr. IZRAEL: And it's interesting. You know, me personally, I think it's too early to call this thing a panacea. I think people are just kind of speaking out of turn, and we should let it do what it do.

Well, speaking of people speaking out of turn. Former President Jimmy Carter, in my opinion, it was kind of off the rails. (Unintelligible) Congressman Joe Wilson was heckling Barack Obama last week. He said he wasn't just heckling him, but he said it was being kind of racist. We've got some tape, don't we?

DEL BARCO: That's right, Jimi. We have audio of former President Jimmy Carter, who said this in answer to a question from an audience member at his presidential center in Atlanta.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he's African-American. I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that shared the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans. And that racism (unintelligible) still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.

DEL BARCO: And, you know guys, the response from the Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was that President Carter was flat out wrong. He said it's not about race, it's about policy. And it's what he called a pathetic distraction. What do you guys think?

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what? You know what? Dr. Spence, I think that Jimmy Carter is out of pocket. I think he has to be careful, you know what I mean? You can not conflate any criticism of the president into racism. And I think it's unfortunate that Jimmy Carter's from that old school era. He's an old school Southern white guy and he's going back to those days and he's trying to make this about race. But I think it was rude, but I don't think Wilson was racist. What do you think Doc?

Dr. SPENCE: I think that one of the challenges here is that we're so use to talking about race as if it's a game, as if it's a card that's played - that we don't talk about racism enough. It's clear to me, even though - it's funny because I actually am glad that Wilson did what he did. I think the only problem about him yelling what he yelled was that he was empirically wrong. But with that said, it's very clear that Joe Wilson's act was driven by racism. I mean so, do recall, recall what he actually yelled at in response to. He yelled at in response to a comment about illegal immigration. What's Joe Wilson's own history?

Not only is he a representative of South Carolina, but he's engaged in a number of practices - he supported a number of efforts that are clearly tied to the old and new Confederacy, right? So Jimmy Carter is absolutely on point. And the challenge is is addressing that in a way that gets us towards more humane policy, as opposed to getting us to better quote/unquote "decorum" in congressional hearings or in Congress.

Mr. IZRAEL: So wait, was the point racist or was it racist to criticize the president? I mean I'm a little confused at what you're saying.

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: I mean because you're talking about Wilson's policies.

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: Was Wilson's policies could be construed to be racist?

Dr. SPENCE: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: But with me, I'm not sure that Wilson would've tried to down talk Bush if Bush had been up talking the same yip-yap.

Dr. SPENCE: No. No.

Mr. IZRAEL: I don't know and I'm not, I guess I'm too willing to give him the benefit of the doubt maybe, right?

Dr. SPENCE: Well, I give him the benefit of the doubt that he had the, I wish more of us had the cajones to do that with the guy that was in the office before Obama. But, what I'm saying is that the race works in a number of different ways in this moment, and what we have to do is think about the way race could work. It's not just a matter of it being cut and dry, is he a racist, isn't he? It's like how does race work in this moment?

It's a matter of, on one hand issues, issues that have been implicitly racialized, right? So health care reform has become an implicitly racialized issue. The other question is, is what type of interactions do we have on a micro level between a guy who's supposed to get a certain amount of respect because of the time we live in and just a regular guy, right? Under what circumstances would a regular guy feel it's basically right to yell at the president, right? Is it just a coincidence in that case that Obama's black instead of not being black?

Mr. IZRAEL: I just don't want us to get to a point where we're dealing in Sharpton politics where if a black hamster gets into it with a white hamster, you know, we call the NAACP.

DEL BARCO: Can I just jump in here for a moment and say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Mandalit del Barco and we're in the Barbershop speaking with journalist Jimi Izrael, Asalan Iftikhar, Ken Rudin, and political science professor Lester Spence.

Jimi, you're up again.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right. Well, you know what? This week even Barack Obama rebuked Kanye West's behavior at the MTV VMA Awards this week when Kanye commandeered the microphone from country singer Taylor Swift to give props to singer, Beyonce. I believe we have some tape of Obama going in on Kanye. Is that right?

DEL BARCO: That's right. And for anybody who might not have seen this; this was when country singer Taylor Swift just won her award for Best Female Video. Kanye West came up and grabbed the mic and told America why Beyonce got robbed of her award. I heard it being described as stepping on a kitten. But here's President Obama's reaction to Kanye West.

President BARACK OBAMA: I thought that was really inappropriate.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

President OBAMA: You know. I thought it was like she's getting an award. What are you butting in it? I, I hear you. I agree with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: I hope I...

Unidentified Man: Sir, does that count as the first question?

President OBAMA: That...

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: The young lady seems like a perfectly nice person. She's getting her award. What's he doing up there?

Unidentified Man: Why would he do that?

President OBAMA: He's a jackass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of whistle)

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow. You know when there's a problem when the president goes in on you. You know you really messed up. A-Train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, you know, this week I couldn't figure out who to give the riduncules(ph) award to between Kanye and Serena Williams' you know, outrageous outburst at the US Open against Kim Clijsters. But Kanye West, as my fellow Chicagoan, gets both the riduncules and the come on man award. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...here you are, you're my age, you're a grown man of 32 years old and you're going to pull a fourth grade stunt. I mean, you're the guy who wrote "Jesus Walks" so I got to say Jesus walked right out of your head on that one while you're on stage. Kanye, you get the riduncules.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know I...

DEL BARCO: He did apologize though, right? Somewhat. Somewhat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I don't care if he apologized.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what's interesting to me? 50 Cent said, I wish he would come up and try to take my award. He said I'd black that eye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: And I'm, my name is Jimi Izrael and I support that message. FYI.

RUDIN: A lot of the stuff I saw on the Web it was also criticizing the media for picking up on President Obama's comment because it was not part of, it was like off the cuff...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.


RUDIN: ...comment that was preceding an interview, which reminds of the famous conversation with Milton Coleman, the former Washington Post, the Washington Post reporter, who with part of a conversation with Jesse Jackson in 1983...

Dr. SPENCE: Oh wow. Yeah.

RUDIN: ...when Jackson mentioned Hymie and Hymietown.

DEL BARCO: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IZRAEL: Nice.

RUDIN: And the question was whether it was legitimate enough to report a private or off the record, or off the record conversation. Obviously nothing in this day and age is off the record.

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah.

DEL BARCO: You got to be careful when you're in front of a mic somehow.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. Right. All right. Well, speaking of people in front of mics, somehow Whitney Houston got in front of a mic and sat down to talk with Oprah about her troubled marriage and drug addiction this week. Now, Mande, you saw that, right?

DEL BARCO: Yeah. Some of us here at TELL ME MORE were huddled around the TV watching that interview. It was a two-parter that aired Monday and Tuesday and here's a clip from that segment where Whitney Houston talks about her past drug use with her ex-husband Bobby Brown.

(Soundbite of Whitney Houston on "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. WHITNEY HOUSTON (Singer): There was times when you know what, he would smash things, break things in the home. We had a big, big giant portrait of me and him and my child. He cut my head off the picture, you know, stuff like that. And I thought, this is really strange, so I figured, Mmm cutting my head off a picture, that was a little much to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOUSTON: Okay, it was like okay, that was one sign and then there were other...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOUSTON: And then there were other things like you know, he started to paint in our room, my bedroom and… Eyes. Just eyes. Evil eyes.

DEL BARCO: Evil eyes.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wow. (Unintelligible). That sound like, you know, excerpts from "The Shinning" you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks for that. You know, what's problematic for me because I saw it too. And Dr. Spence, I don't know if you want to go here with me because you have a wife to go home to, so maybe you don't. But for me, there was a, in Whitney I found this really troubling lack of personal accountability. Now, let's give that she went through a lot, right? But she was also holding the purse strings. And she could've left at any given time. And I felt like Oprah trying to get her to apologize for standing by her vows was really troubling and ugly. And I was done with it when the daughter came on.

When she brought the daughter on, I thought that was really odorous. You know; if you're going to go in on the husband, you know, don't involve the child. And I'm not convinced that this wasn't just kind of this staged Oprah Winfrey moment to help Whitney Houston get back on the charts again.

Dr. SPENCE: I think the issue of domestic abuse is something that's really, really serious, right?

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SPENCE: And I think that it's something that we should talk more about. But it has to be a better way to address that in a way that actually gives people the space to speak about their own stuff, that gives us the space to kind of create some policies. It's clear, and I have a, and I really hope that Whitney does well. It's good to see her kind of sort of trying to get her groove back. But you don't talk about that. I mean talking about that stuff as a way to sell albums is just really, really distasteful to me.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. I agree. A-Train?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I mean to be honest, when I watched this interview I didn't really see anything or hear anything that I didn't already know about Whitney and Bobby. You know, I don't think that it added and I didn't see any news hook to it. You know, I agree with you guys. I think it was kind of, I mean let's be honest; Bobby and Whitney have been media personalities and media phenomenon, if you will, you know, both as individuals and as you know, one conjoined and now disjointed unit. It's really sad to see. I mean, for me it just speaks to you know, our overarching love and cult of celebrity. You know, once you're off the cameras you're going to find any way to get back on, whether it's by "Celebrity Fit Club," or being on "Big Brother 7" or you know, it's just like people can't let go of fame and celebrity and they will find any way to try and get back. And it's kind of sad.

DEL BARCO: And revealing.

Mr. IZRAEL: I was just really troubled that, you know, she really pointed the finger at Bobby, and you know, Bobby made me, you know? And I don't buy it. I'm sorry, because, you know, she hold - I mean she could've got out of that situation at any point in time she wanted to. It's not like; it's not a situation where Bobby was in control. You know, she gave him control. And for me, she never took that personal accountability. She never did. She didn't - not for me. So Ken?

RUDIN: Jimi, let me disagree with you a little bit...

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay.

RUDIN: ...because we never know what causes people to stay or leave and what, you know, how much or how much life could hell and yet people stay for the assortment of reasons. But I thought - what I got out of the interview mostly was the fact and, of course, we knew a lot of the stuff as Arsalan mentioned, but when you talk about fame and celebrity, it's not all what it's cracked up to be and...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

RUDIN: ...you know, there's just you know, there's a lot of horrible stories out there. And I thought it was a little inner look at somebody so famous and so much of a celebrity.

DEL BARCO: I wonder if Oprah Winfrey is going to have Bobby Brown on her show.

Mr. IZRAEL: For me that would've been fair. That would've been fair. And I also thought it was really, I mean I didn't see any reason on God's Earth to have this daughter involved in this - ugh.

Dr. SPENCE: When Bobby's album comes out it's on.

Mr. IZRAEL: You think so?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: He's going to call it prerogative versus prerogative.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: You know and, of course, we know we're happy to see Whitney recover from a - or I guess she's recovering from her addictions and pulling herself up. At the same time, you know, I'd much rather not see her air out her daughter's father on TV.

RUDIN: But I think...

Mr. IZRAEL: That's real talk.

RUDIN: I think the name of Bobby Brown's album would be Houston, we have a problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: But what's love got to do with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. Exactly. We're all over the place and as Whitney might say, my name is not Susan. My name is Jimi Iz and I got to call it a wrap. Thank you so much everybody, for coming out to the shop. I have to kick it over to the woman of the house standing in for the woman of house...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: ...Mandalit del Barco.

DEL BARCO: Thank you, Jimi.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for theRoot.com. He's also a presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio and he joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a civil rights attorney. And Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. And we were also joined by Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. All of them were kind enough to join me here in our Washington studios.

Thanks to all of you.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: And that's our program for today. I'm Mandalit del Barco. Michel Martin will be back next week.

You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Let's talk more on Monday.

(Soundbite of music)

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