'Shop Talk': Obama Reaches Out To Bush, Leno vs. O'Brien

In this week's installment of the Barbershop, host Michel Martin talks with freelance writer Jimi Izrael, journalist Rob Capriccioso, political science professor Lester Spence and NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin. They discuss President Obama tapping former president George W. Bush to help lead the U.S. humanitarian efforts in Haiti, Senator Reid's recently revealed comments about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 and NBC's late night comedy-turned-drama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time 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 the chairs for a shape-up this week are freelance writer, Jimi Izrael; political science professor and blogger, Lester Spence; Indian Country Today reporter, Rob Capriccioso; and NPR's political editor Ken Rudin. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr.�JIMI IZRAEL (Freelance Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

KEN RUDIN: How are you, Jimi?

Mr.�LESTER SPENCE (Political Science Professor; Blogger): Hey, it's good to be here.

Mr.�ROB CAPRICCIOSO (Reporter, Indian Country Today): Good to be here, Jimi.

Mr.�IZRAEL: Well, today I want to start off the shop on a bit of a somber note. A 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on Wednesday, and President Obama has responded swiftly with promises for aid. He's also tapped former President George W. Bush to help lead the U.S. humanitarian effort along with former President Clinton. Michel, wow.

MARTIN: I know. What do you think about that, Jimi?

Mr.�IZRAEL: I think that's a pretty dynamic duo, but I wouldn't have put those two together. Lester Spence, what do you think about that, Doc?

Dr.�SPENCE: Yeah, I had the exact same feeling about it that you did. I think that Clinton makes a great deal of sense because he's been fighting for this issue for a while, or fighting for Haiti for a while. George Bush, I was kind of clueless about.

MARTIN: Well, why not? Ken, what do you think about that? Why not? I mean, I think from a stature, the immediate past president says that this is a vital matter. You're kind of reaching out to all sectors. What do you think?

RUDIN: Well, actually, I kind of thought it was a very interesting move. It almost gives President Bush, former President Bush, a second chance, like a redemption, in a sense, because of how he bungled, mismanaged, Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And I think a lot of people feel that. I think even the administration, the Bush administration would be the first people to agree that they did not handle it the way they should have, nor did the governorship of Kathleen Blanco, neither did Mayor Ray Nagin.

Everybody failed, he government failed, and to see President Obama out front, immediately, on the Haitian crisis and it's just horrific beyond comprehension, the loss that's there, as if Haiti has not suffered enough.

Mr.�IZRAEL: Right.

RUDIN: And of course, so to have Bush and Clinton there, of course, Clinton has more important things to do. Friday, he's going to be campaigning for Martha Coakley in Massachusetts in the Senate race, but of course, Clinton has spent a lot of time working on humanitarian aid. Having Bush there, I think, is a good move.

MARTIN: And I just wanna - I made that Katrina connection. I think that makes perfect sense. I mean, I know that Hurricane Katrina, for example, was very it really his handling of it actually damaged him with his base, which is something that very rarely happens.

RUDIN: The beginning of his end.

MARTIN: For example, yeah, Christian Evangelicals, for example, profoundly disturbed by his performance in that area. I had never thought of that. So thank you for that. But you know, speaking of...

Mr.�IZRAEL: Ken?

MARTIN: Go ahead.

Mr.�IZRAEL: Yeah, Ken, I've been egging to get you in the shop. You take your chair because I'm really intrigued that exiled President Jean Aristide is talking about coming back or going back to Haiti, you know, to help his fellow countrymen, and how do you read that, man? I can't see that helping the situation.

RUDIN: It's hard to see Haiti, which has suffered so terribly for decades, it's obviously the most downtrodden country in the Western Hemisphere, and for all the aid it's gotten it's gotten billions and billions of dollars of aid it's hard to make the case that that is, you know, anything that could help. You don't want more political controversy. You don't want more political antagonism - but right now, the less we talk about politics and the more we talk about aid, we're better off.

Mr.�IZRAEL: Amen, brother. Yeah, I think Aristide is just going to bring just strife, you know, to that region. Dr.�Spence, what do you think?

Dr.�SPENCE: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right, and I think what we need to be focused on is rebuilding infrastructure. To the extent that we have somebody with baggage coming in to take away from that effort is a bad move. It's a bad look.

Mr.�IZRAEL: Okay, Michel?

MARTIN: Moving on to politics here, I think one of the things I'm eager to hear everybody talk about is that comment by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who apologized for making a comment about President Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. Somebody dimed him out. I mean, this was a private comment that he made to somebody, and somebody dimed him out to two reporters who wrote a book called "Game Change."

And Reid was quoted as saying, which he clearly said, because he apologized for it immediately, that he felt America was ready for a candidate like Obama who was, quote, a light-skinned African-American with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.

And so he's been under fire. The president accepted his apology. I'll just play a short clip of what he had to say.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is a good man who has always been on the right side of history. For him to have used some inartful language in trying to praise me, and for people to try to make hay out of that, makes absolutely no sense.

MARTIN: But, of course, Jimi, as you know, some Republicans are calling for Reid to step down and they accuse Democrats of having a double standard on race. Heres Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele speaking on Fox News channel. Steele, of course, is African-American. This is what he had to say.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own. But if it comes from anyone else, it's racism. Remember, this is the same leader, who just a few weeks ago, was talking about health care in the context of slavery.

Dr. SPENCE: Wow.

MARTIN: Well?

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know, I think for me it comes under the heading of you know, this just in, water is wet. Dr. Spence, I mean so we're just now. Yeah I mean we...

MARTIN: Huh? Excuse me? What does that mean?

Mr. IZRAEL: That means we're just now finding out that white people are a little more comfortable around lighter skinned people, really? Is that news Dr. Spence?

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah. I think - Blair Kelley wrote a - a professor at North Carolina State - she wrote a really really thoughtful piece about this as a line. I think there was a moment that was missed here, in that the challenge isn't that that he said it, the challenge is that he was right, right? So we know that linguistic racism exist, that is black who speak a certain way get less resources than blacks who speak another way - unless youre in hip-hop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SPENCE: We know that blacks who have lighter skin - and this actually, not just here in America - but in Brazil and South Africa, get more stuff than blacks who dont have later skin. So I think this is was moment...

MARTIN: How about all around the world, Lester? How about all around the world?

Dr. SPENCE: ...where we could've really talked about this stuff deeply and instead what we just did on both sides was just try to tear Reid a new one. I don't think that's right.

MARTIN: Ken, what do you think about that?

Mr. IZRAEL: Ken, what's your read?

RUDIN: Well, several things. First of all, there's no such thing as a private comment, especially when youre making it to a journalist. For Harry Reid to use the N word, and this is the Negro word, to a white a journalist. But its not about white journalists. Remember when Jesse Jackson talked about Hymietown? That was to Milton Coleman, who's an African-American journalist at the Washington Post. The point is, you dont say these things to a journalist and expect it not to come out.

But having said that, there's another issue there and that's what the Republicans are saying about there's double standard, because Trent Lott had this homage to Strom Thurmond in 2002, that if he were elected, if he were president we wouldnt have these problems that we have today - which a lot of people said wait a second, this means that if this white racist - Strom Thurmond was elected in 1948 - everything would be fine. And it was actually not the Democrat liberal African-American coalition that drummed Trent Lott out of office; it was the Bush White House because they were humiliated. The difference between the, Michael Steele says there's a hypocrisy here. The difference, of course, is Harry Reid has an exemplary record on civil rights. Trent Lott has opposed civil rights legislation his whole career.

MARTIN: Well, I know policy seems to be completely lost here.

Dr. SPENCE: No. No. Wait a second. This is Dr. Spence. Hold on.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. We need to get. Sorry. Lester, no, we need to get Rob in the conversation, so let Rob get into this conversation. Rob also has been reporting on this too, so.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Talking about hypocrisy and double standards, one thing that I've been covering with Indian Country Today is another fact. A Fox News appearance that Michael Steele made on January 4th where he has used the term honest Injun to back up his remarks on conservative principles and a lot of Native Americans didnt like him using those words.

They are offensive and, you know, dictionary say they're a slang word for Native Americans. So for Steele to have made the point that Reid should step down without first addressing that controversy and maybe apologizing for it as the Native American Journalist Association had asked him to do, he ignored that. He didnt return calls to Indian Country Today. He didnt return calls from a lot of blogs, mainstream media outlets on that issue, back before the Reid scandal came to light.

So, then he comes out on the air. He makes, you know, he says Reid should step down for his, what he perceived, to be racist remarks so people are asking about the messenger there. How could he have been making this point about someone, when he has the background just from a few days ago, of not rectifying his own situation with regards to the issue...

MARTIN: So youre saying that this was called to his attention at the time. This wasnt a belated thing.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Oh yeah. This was something he knew about. People, the RNC called them. I called them. They said theyve gotten tons of calls about that issue. Then it wasnt until the next week, January 10th, when he was on Chris Wallace's show on Fox News where Chris actually asked him a question I wish more journalists would be asking, which was reviewing what he had said...

MARTIN: On his own comments.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: ...on his own honest Injun.

MARTIN: And what did he say?

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: He said if that is a racial slur, I apologize for it. It wasnt meant to be a racial slur. That if, conditional, has gotten a lot of people angry.

MARTIN: Well, Rob, what do you think of the Negro dialect comment? What do you make of that?

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah. I think that it's fair that a lot of people called Reid on it. If they feel offended by it, why not? And for Reid to apologize, he obviously sees that side of the debate. He knows that it's wrong.

RUDIN: But who says those words anymore? That's what's so strange about him. Who says Negro in the 21st century or the 20th century?

MARTIN: I dont know, unless there was - go ahead.

Mr. IZRAEL: That was his way of being polite I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But that shows his age in part. Maybe that was the word du jour when he was a young adult.

If youre just joining us...

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, he's 150 years old.

MARTIN: He's 70. If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Youre listening to our weekly Barbershop conversation and we're speaking with Jimi Izrael, Lester Spence, Rob Capriccioso and Ken Rudin.

Lester, you wanted to say something. I'm sorry.

Dr. SPENCE: No, I'm sorry about...

MARTIN: Rob had not had a chance to get in the conversation. I thought we didnt want to leave him out, sorry.

Dr. SPENCE: No, I apologize. So real quick, there's a signal difference between Trent Lott supporting a segregationist and a racist for president, and saying that the world would be a better place and a senator saying well, black people who are light skinned get more stuff and black people speak a certain way get more stuff.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Dr. SPENCE: One is accurate and one is deeply racist. I'm glad that Reid apologized, but there - those two very different things.

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: So Jimi, what do you think? I dont think you weighed in on that. Do you think - what?

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean you think that it was accurate but...

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah. I mean again, for me it comes under news of the obvious that, you know, African-Americans that are lighter skinned and that speak a little closer to what we consider to be the Queen's English or the King's English, you know, are treated differently. So yeah, it was no surprise to me. You know, and he apologized, but he didnt have to apologize to me as far as I was concerned, so.

MARTIN: Was that Queen's English thing a dig at me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Wait. Youre from...

Mr. IZRAEL: Let's keep it in motion right quick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Wait. Youre from Queens? I thought you from the...

MARTIN: Well, you know, my maiden name is McQueen, so I'm thinking a little subtle hostility there.

RUDIN: McQueen's English.

MARTIN: McQueen's English.

Dr. SPENCE: No. You know he did not.

Mr. IZRAEL: Moving on.

MARTIN: Moving on.

Mr. IZRAEL: Moving on. It's official that Jay Leno...

MARTIN: Speaking of moving on.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, Jay Leno was back at his old chair and hosting NBC's "The Tonight Show." And it looks like NBC is fine with Conan O'Brien walking away from the network. Holy Mackerel, Andy, we're in trouble now because Jay Leno has some of the un-funniest writers in television and Conan O'Brien probably is one of the funniest people to ever be exposed to the media.

MARTIN: You know, you are so alone in this. I have to tell you; you are so alone in this.

Mr. IZRAEL: Really? Really? Seriously?

MARTIN: You are so alone in this. Clearly, I dont know. See you and Conan are...

Mr. IZRAEL: Conan O'Brien is brilliant. He's brilliant.

MARTIN: Well, he's actually been pretty funny the last couple of nights when he's talked about his own situation, but...

Mr. IZRAEL: I look at Conan O'Brien as a writer, and a writer that graduated from the desk to in front of the camera, and taken that way, I mean his work in total its just, it's textbook stuff. It's great stuff. I'm sorry, and we'll lose somebody really important to the medium if he walks away. I'm that dude and I approve this message.

MARTIN: Important and Conan O'Brien in the same sentence. I'm wrapping my head around that.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: I hate to tell you, Michel...

MARTIN: Rob, go ahead. Talk about...

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: I am team Conan here, so...

MARTIN: Oh.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: ...people feel this way. Yeah, I think that he's a solid comedian. I've had a lot of laughs. And Jay Leno, his humor seems to be - it appeals to, I dont know, can we say it appeals to more middle of the country? More...

RUDIN: Light skinned people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. Just speak it, brother. Just speak it. This is the Barbershop now. Speak it.

Dr. SPENCE: This is a tragic case of white on white violence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: What I'm curious though is Michel, what do you like about Jay?

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: What about humor is...

MARTIN: It's soothing.

Mr. IZRAEL: Besides his chin.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: It's soothing. It helps you fall asleep, right?

MARTIN: Yeah. I dont think that's such a bad thing. Okay?

RUDIN: You know, first of all, I think Neal Conan's funnier than Conan O'Brien, I mean if you want to think of it that way.

Dr. SPENCE: Oh, wow.

RUDIN: But no, really, I mean who cares? You know, there's tons of late-night comedians. Jay Leno hasnt been funny since Carson left, I think, and I dont mean Kit Carson. I mean Johnny Carson, and I think Conan O'Brien is just not funny. I dont know, he's just, he's goofy but I dont think he's just - I think Letterman is edgy. And Letterman, for you what you like about his private life or not, is more - but Conan O'Brien is just...

MARTIN: Well, it shows that it's not about age, because Letterman is of the same generation...

RUDIN: Oh, no.

MARTIN: ...as Leno and he is still edgy. It's all about the - but for whatever reason, Conan just, in my view, he didnt make the transition to that space. I mean, I thought his humor was very sort of in group...

Mr. IZRAEL: It was a different style, I think. A different crowd.

MARTIN: And, you know, it's like you get it or you dont get it and I just dont, I don't think it was...

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: He was given seven months with "The Tonight Show" though. And, you know, Jay Leno was being really hurt in the ratings by David Letterman back in the early '90s for the first 18 months of the show. People were saying that maybe Jay should've been picked back in the early '90s.

MARTIN: But maybe he shouldnt have been dumped this time around. There's was nothing wrong with his show at the time that they made that transition. They made that transition for corporate reasons. So you see what I'm saying? You get the job for corporate reasons not because of any particular flag in the numbers, not because of any particular change in the quality of the show, but just for corporate reasons. It was a corporate transition. It's like an insurance company, oh well; weve decided that, you know, that its time for you to retire. Excuse me? Excuse me?

Mr. IZRAEL: But Rob makes a great point, though. Rob makes a great point. You know, Conan has not been in there long enough to make it work. This is television. This isn't microwave television. You know, and its a shame that Jay Leno was kind of pushing and using his weight and he's using his weight to kind of push people around. And that's what it feels like to me. It feels like he's using his chin to muscle in on Conan.

MARTIN: Why do you think he has the power here? I mean these are decisions made far above his pay grade, which is considerable. But he's not the guy.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. I mean, but he had some good numbers in that spot and they're thinking if he gets back, those are decent numbers, better than Conan's numbers in that spot. And they're thinking that, you know, NBC is spinning around the bowl as it is, and they're thinking that they dont want to take the final turn.

MARTIN: Well, since you love him so much, we will play a short clip of his making fun of his own situation just so you and Rob can be happy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Here it is.

Mr. IZRAEL: Drop it.

(Soundbite of "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien")

Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN (Host, "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien"): Ive been giving this situation a lot of thought. You know, this is true, when I was a little boy, I remember watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and thinking: Someday, Im going to host that show for seven months.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. O'BRIEN: A lot going on in the world. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in the news. He's still under fire for remarks he made about President Obamas blackness. Bad. Yeah. Sources say Reid could face Congressional censure, or even worse, be promised the The Tonight Show at 11:30.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: I will say, he was on a roll Jimi, so well give you that. So maybe he should get fired more often, right. Sorry about that.

Mr. IZRAEL: And there's always Arsenio. We can always bring Arsenio back, right?

MARTIN: Oh, ouch.

Mr. IZRAEL: Woo, woo, woo.

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael - thanks everybody. Jimi Izrael's a freelance journalist. He writes for theRoot.com. He's also a presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He joined us from WCPN in Cleveland. Lester Spence is a blogger and political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He joined us from member station WEAA in Baltimore. Ken Rudin is NPR's Political Editor and Rob Capriccioso is a reporter for Indian Country Today, the leading national news source for Native Americans and they joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Thank you.

RUDIN: If Jimi Izrael was president we wouldnt have these problems today.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Another reason.

And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Lets talk more on Monday.

(Soundbite of music)

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