'Shop Talk': 2009 Full Of Glory, Despair

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The Barbershop guys offer their take on some of the more prominent stories to make headlines in 2009, such as the arrest of black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates after he was perceived as a burglar outside his home and the sudden death of music superstar Michael Jackson. This week's panel — freelance Writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin — also discuss stories they believe were underreported in 2009, such as the weakened state of many of the nation's public schools.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, today is not only the last day of the year but of the decade. We'll have our conversation later in the program about the pivotal moments of the last 10 years, drawing from regular contributors to a variety of our segments. So, please stay with us for that.

But first, we take a look back at the most memorable moments of 2009, in our weekly Barber Shop segment. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chair for our shape up this week are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, what's good?

KEN RUDIN: Have a beer.

Mr. IZRAEL: Welcome to the Shop. And to you, how it's going?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Editor, Founder, MuslimGuy.com): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Syndicated Columnist): I'm good, man, hey.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know what, 2009, it's almost behind us. But how can we forget how it started, with the historic inauguration of the first African-American president, Barack Obama.

MARTIN: Yeah, if you didn't tell us his name we might forget it, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You - we'll just play a little clip of...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: We can't call him that dude.

MARTIN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: All right.

MARTIN: Let's play a short clip of just a minute from the inauguration, for people who want to remember that moment. Here it is.

(Soundbite of oath taking Barack Obama)

Chief Justice JOHN ROBERTS (Supreme Court): I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

President-Elect BARACK OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: ...that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully...

President Elect OBAMA: ...that I will execute...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: ...faithfully the - office of President of United States...

President Elect OBAMA: ...the office of President to the United States faithfully...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: ...and will to the best of my ability...

President Elect OBAMA: ...and will to the best of my ability...

Chief Justice ROBERTS: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

President Elect OBAMA: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Chief Justice ROBERTS: So help you God.

President Elect OBAMA: So help me God.

Chief Justice ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

MARTIN: I'd forgotten that.

RUDIN: Yeah.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: That Chief Justice John Roberts messed it up.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: And they had to do it again.

RUDIN: Right.

MARTIN: I hope that isn't a metaphor for what was to come. I don't know, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. Listen, you know what, Ken, he came into office promising all this change. So, far has he lived up to it?

RUDIN: Well, no. Of course, when he was asked - when the president was asked what kind of a grade he would give himself, he said a B-plus. A lot of people said more like an incomplete.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh.

RUDIN: The word of hope that we always heard, we heard during the campaign, probably the word hope is one of the reasons he got the Nobel Peace Prize for hope, for what the possibility is. The problem is that as Karl Rove, I hate to call on Karl Rove here, but as Karl Rove pointed out in The Wall Street Journal a week or so ago, President Obama has the lowest approval rating of any first time elected president since World War II.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Doh.

RUDIN: Now, he started out with tremendous promise. There are a lot of things in the works but for him to complete these things and to go on to become a great president he's going to have to have more finished product than he has now.

MARTIN: I just - can I just point out one thing about these approval ratings, because I realize this is one of the Republican talking points and - and that's perfectly fine. But let's also remember that at this point in their presidencies George W. Bush was - it was just post-9/11 and was addressing that and there was that kind of that surge of sort of kind of collective sentiment of patriotism behind him. I think people were loathe to criticize the president. President Ronald Reagan had just survived a shooting and with great dignity and courage, early in his term. So, I think that there are some factors there in the approval ratings there.

RUDIN: Yes, but there is Eisenhower, there is Kennedy, there is Nixon, there is Carter, I mean, - I mean, I'm not trying to...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

RUDIN: Look, everybody has a different situation. And, of course, everything you say is true. But the point is that he came in with such hope because so many people were so aggravated over the past several years, the preceding several years, on the war, the unending war, the rising taxes, the collapse of the economic system and people expected so much and perhaps that's why the decline is that much greater, I think.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what, Ruben, to Ken's point, you know, I wrote about it a bit and my whole thing was like, you know, there's no way he can't fail. Because people were coming in, you know, expecting him to turn water to wine and...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...deliver milk and honey...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right, right.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...and to get sheep laying with lions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: And all this kind of stuff. So, there was just no way that he couldn't fail as far as his first year out.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, expectations were really high. Everybody had their own -it was like a Christmas tree, you know, the season it was everybody hung something on the Obama presidency. And civil libertarians thought they were going to find, you know, close Gitmo and we're gonna end detentions, we're gonna do all this good stuff. And people - oh, people who were anti-war said we're going to get out of Afghanistan, you know.

RUDIN: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Latinos said, we're finally going to get immigration reform. And one after another, these groups have been disappointed. I was struck by this poll this week that just blew me away. It was a poll by CNN that looked at how African-Americans feel about Obama. It's not surprising President Obama - it's not surprising that still nine out of 10 approved of the president's job performance.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hmm.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And he is most popular among African-Americans. However, what's interesting is that since January, the percentage of people who just say they're thrilled with the Obama presidency has declined significantly from 61 percent in January, when he was inaugurated, to 42 percent now. There's a lot of black folks out there included who just are really supportive of the brother. They really are the delighted and proud of him and what everything he has accomplished. But they're looking at the policies and they're thinking, you know what, this is not exactly what I was looking for.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And I will struck again when Danny Glover, the Hollywood actor, came forward and just called it out and said, you know what, I look at Bush and his policies, I look at Obama and I don't see a difference. That's heavy.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, for me, I'm sick of actors trying to pretend to be pundits. You know, I mean, they're voters, too. But, you know, push the mic away when they start asking you about politics, as far as I'm concerned. You know, that goes for Spike Lee, you know, Nipsy Russell, Danny Glover...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: ...all of you, just push the mic away. A-Train, you've been riding with Obama from early on, bro, are you still - you still in there?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I've been there since the beginning and I will be there till the end. Now, of course, having said that, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Okay.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...that does not mean that, you know, I'm not going to point out both the success...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, are Democrats not allowed to have a base? I'm just curious about that.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No, of course, that...

Mr. IZRAEL: Famous last words, bro.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, just curious, it was just...

Mr. IZRAEL: Famous last words.

MARTIN: Go ahead - go ahead Arsalan.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I think what's important to keep in mind is, again, he has just barely completed his first year of his presidency.

Mr. IZRAEL: Hmm.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, he inherited, you know, a trillion dollar deficit, two wars. You know, he inherited a lot of the legacy of George W. Bush, which is now his own. You know, I think, Ruben pointed out something that was right, you know, in terms of the foreign policy, I think President Obama really has caused a shift from the President Bush paradigms. You know, we had the major speeches in Cairo and Ankara, Turkey, reaching out to the greater world.

You know, we did have the upsurge in Afghanistan, which he did say that he was going to do, not as much as he actually did end up doing. And so, I think in terms of rhetoric, you know, he may have gotten an A, I think in terms of actual policy he is probably at the C level right now. So, probably combined grade of B.

MARTIN: I wanted to...

RUDIN: You really gracious, bro.

MARTIN: But the rhetoric thing is interesting to me because I do wonder whether some of the dissatisfaction with some members of the base has to do with a perceived lack of forcefulness around the issues that...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...that are most important to...

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...members of the base.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...like the issue of closing Guantanamo.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...like the issue of immigration reform. So that's a sort of perceived lack of intensity around the issue.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It's some of that, Michel, but also a devastating column this week from Maureen Dowd.

RUDIN: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...not to call her a conservative, obviously. She's someone who caused George Bush and company a lot of heartburn over the years. And she laid into Obama because Obama doesn't have any passion. Even when we discover, you know, a potential terrorist attack on airplane, Obama is so cerebral, it's all about - you know, he's so brilliant, so to speak, that he doesn't get his heart into it and people want to see their heart in it. And I think when you start getting criticism from the left, from Maureen Dowd, for not having enough passion, you got a problem.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting - let me just jump in just very quickly to say if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barber Shop, the last of this year, the last of this decade.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yo.

MARTIN: Shed a tear. We're speaking with journalist Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarrette, and Ken Rudin. One of the things that fascinates me, and Jimi, I know you wanted to talk about this, is the whole issue of race as a conversation. Obviously, this is one of the subjects of our program. So, we talk about it a lot. But it is interesting to me that when the president has been compassionate about an issue, like race, he gets criticized for it. Like, for example, on the whole, skip Gates episode...

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...for people who - people who remember that, a Harvard law professor, sorry not law professor, Harvard history professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested after being perceived to be breaking into his own home when the door was jammed. And then, of course, that sort of sparked this whole conversation. The president decided he wanted to lower the temperature by bringing him and the arresting officer in for a beer at the White House.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: But preceding that at a press conference he talked about how he felt this had been handled poorly. And he did have kind of what a lot of people cite as uncharacteristic intensity. And he was criticized for that.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So, I want to know, Jimi, what do you think about that?

Mr. IZRAEL: The problem with that was, look, you know, it's showed a lot of people that voted for him how black he actually was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: And not just that, I really thought there was a lot cronyism. I mean, you get your friend, the president, to mediate, you know, between you and the cop. It's not like he was stepping up on behalf of Lindsey Lohan to trying to, you know...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Get in that club.

Mr. IZRAEL: ...get the paparazzi to back off or, you know, even trying to mediate, you know, �Jon and Kate Plus Eight,� you know, I mean, he stepped in with his buddy. You know, and I don't know...

MARTIN: I hear you, but overall, I'm very - I'm interested in what the guys have to say about the way, if in fact - Ruben, maybe you want to jump in on this - whether or not sort of the national dialogue on race has been changed at all.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Totally, I think so, and I think Obama gets an A-plus-plus-plus for his wonderful speech in Philadelphia when he was running for president. When he has approached the issue of race in a very thoughtful and passionate way as he did in that speech, everybody loves it. It's hard to find any criticism. But what he did with regard to the Cambridge Police Department, Obama spoke stupidly, to borrow a phrase.

You know, he brought down the temperature with beers on the White House lawn because he'd already raised the temperature by saying, speaking out of turn about what had happened without having all the facts before him, having later to apologize for that.

So I think the problem with people is that they want - race is such an explosive issue. When you have the first black president talking about it, do it like you did it in Philadelphia. Don't do it like, you know, the Cambridge police acted stupidly.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Go ahead, Arsalan.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: But what I think - the Skip Gates, Joe Carley incident did prove is that we do not yet live in a post-racial America. You know, I think when we - we obviously talked about it extensively on the Barbershop here, you know, in terms of the fact that, you know, had it been a white professor in his house talking back to a police officer, I think that - I don't think there would be anybody on this panel who would have ever said that, you know, he would have then been escorted outside and then been arrested.

And so I think it proves - you know, obviously, you know, there are missteps that were taken, but I also think it speaks to a broader point about how, even with the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president, we still do not live in a post-racial America yet.

MARTIN: Ken, did you want to weigh in on this before we move on?

RUDIN: Well, several things. First of all, Ruben makes a very good point. I mean, the fact is that a lot of people criticized Obama for speaking from his heart, and he may have said some silly things about race that they had to backtrack from, but then again, we always complain about how our politicians are so scripted, are so unreal that when President Obama does say something from the heart, whether it's right or wrong, he gets criticized for that, too. So he seems like he can't have it either way.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know, this year, there was a lot of stuff to talk about, and there was a lot of stuff that happened in pop culture. We had Tiger Woods fall from grace. There was the Chris Brown-Rihanna domestic assault. But nothing touched all of our lives the way that it did with the king of pop passing this year. Who do you think we'll see inheriting MJ's throne? A-Train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Oh, man. I don't think that's a throne that can be inherited. For me, at least, you know, I will have to give my 2009 ridunculous award to Tiger Woods. I mean, just to see that entire debacle. I mean, here you had the first billion-dollar athlete, one of the most recognizable faces, athletic faces, on the face of the earth, and within a couple of weeks to see that fall from grace, you know, to me he gets the yearly ridunculous award.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: Okay, if we can find him, he gets the award, but right now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: That's true.

Mr. IZRAEL: K-Dog.

RUDIN: Yeah, well, I was going to say I think Tiger Woods is with Dick Cheney in that bunker. He hasn't come out yet, which is very strange. But I think - but you know, you remember what happened with Muhammad Ali in 1964, '65, '66. He was a great heavyweight champion, but he also had this stuff outside the ring that of course was about politics and about race and about the Vietnam War, which seemed to, you know, capture the entire country.

So is Tiger Woods a lesser of a golfer? No. Is he not the athlete of the decade? Who knows. Or the year, or whatever. But the point is that we seem to confuse sportsmen and athletes with ideals, and Tiger Woods may not be my ideal or your ideal. He may be a great golfer, too. At some point, we're going to have to decide what's more important.

MARTIN: But you know, it is interesting to me that our whole - the whole role of celebrity is something that just became a topic of the decade. But these reality shows, which really aren't real - I mean, come on, who are we kidding - but it exposed people and their lives to us in a way that we really hadn't seen before and then people becoming famous for being famous. I think it kind of led to this idea that we're entitled to know all these people's business in a way that we would not have thought 20 or 30 years ago.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, we're deep into the Twitter generation. We're deep into Facebook. We're deep into sharing everything we know about each other and having people follow us around, all this other stuff. But this notion of fame as, like, the new drug, that was really driven home in 2009. You had the White House gate-crashers. You had balloon boy. Every time there was a kind of a head-scratching story, sure enough, the base line was these people want their own reality show.

MARTIN: Yeah, that's so true.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: This is how people audition for a reality show these days.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of stories - we only have a couple minutes left, and I sure hope we can hear from everybody on this. I'd love to know if each of you, what was the most under-covered story of 2008, something you really should have gotten more attention or, if you want to do it this way, what's the story you're most interested in for 2010? Could we do that? Arsalan, do you want to start?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I think for me, one of the most under-reported stories of the year had to do with the child actors of "Slumdog Millionaire." After the movie, you know, became a global, you know, phenomenon, you know, the young girl in "Slumdog Millionaire" was essentially put on auction by her own family because of the fact that, you know, they didn't get paid enough for the movie, and they felt that, you know, you're getting back to the cult of celebrity that they were going to, you know, be able to cash in on the fame of their child actor.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Ruben, what about you?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think there's a lot to be said and hopefully will still be said about where the left is with Barack Obama on some of these issues, civil libertarians. I mentioned before and all, but basically, the Republicans have their own dysfunctions, clearly, but one of the things that liberals are struggling with, and we need to hear more about, is sort of the gradual disillusionment with the president. So maybe we'll be hearing more of that.

MARTIN: Ken, what about you?

RUDIN: Well, I don't think anything is un-covered, especially with 24/7 cable, but if you looked at the tea parties, if you looked at the anger, and you looked at the hate and the stuff that was spewn from them with - basically based on misinformation or not, the point is there is so much anger in this country, and the talk about post-racial - I meat Post Raisin Bran. You can name any post you want, but the point is there's a lot of anger in this country that I suspect as we get closer to election will only get worse.

MARTIN: Interesting. For me, I must say immigration because I feel that it's in part because the major-party candidates really didn't disagree on the issue. The issue didn't get the attention that it would've otherwise. But I still think it's the sleeper. So Jimmy, final word very briefly?

Mr. IZRAEL: State of public-school education. I want to read more about that.

MARTIN: So true. So well-said. Well, thank you everybody. Happy New Year. We loved having you all every minute. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist, he writes for the theroot.com. He's also a presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, the founder of themuslimguy.com and a legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. They were both here in our Washington, D.C., studio.

Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. He joined us on the line from his home office. And Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist. He writes for cnn.com and the San Diego Union Tribune. He joined us on the line from San Diego. Happy New Year, everybody.

RUDIN: Happy New Year.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Feliz Ano Nuevo.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Have a safe new year, too.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: In a moment, a look at the issues that marked what Time magazine has called the decade from hell.

Ms. PAM GENTRY (Political Analyst): I will always say that probably, this is the war that we shouldn't have been involved in and that this will be the one in history where people will look back and say this was for naught.

MARTIN: A panel of contributors drawn from a variety of our regular segments, recaps of the decade. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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