'Shop Talk': Jay Leno Whines To Oprah

In this week's installment of the Barbershop, host Michel Martin joins regulars Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Gustavo Arrellano and Ken Rudin talks to discuss MSNBC host Chris Matthew's knee-jerk response to President Obama's recent State of the Union address. Also, the men hold their applause for NBC comedian Jay Leno's recent appearance on Oprah.

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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, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Gustavo Arrellano and NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Oh, fellas, what's good? Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

GUSTAVO ARRELLANO: What's up, Jimi?

KEN RUDIN: Happy State of the Union.

IZRAEL: Well, you know what? President Obama, he gave his first State of the Union speech earlier this week, and there were several kind of surprising reactions. Like first, MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews is under fire because, you know, he was so impressed by the speech that somehow, you know, he forgot the president was black, Michel.

MARTIN: Really? Did you, Jimi?

IZRAEL: I mean, wow.

MARTIN: Did you forget the president was black?

IZRAEL: I had to ask around, and as it turns out, you know, just like Jay-Z said: My president is black, just like my Mercedes Benz.

MARTIN: Well, maybe everybody doesn't know what we're talking about. So let me just play a short clip if you want to hear it. Here's Chris Matthew, and here's what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)

CHRIS MATTHEWS: I was trying to think about who he was tonight, and it's interesting. He is post-racial by all appearances. You know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country and past so much history in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about.

I was watching. I said, wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people, and there he is president of the United States, and we've completely forgotten that tonight, completely forgotten it.

MARTIN: Completely.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: Holy mackerel.

IZRAEL: Ken.

RUDIN: You know, it's funny. Actually for an hour, I forgot that Chris Matthews was a moron.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Only for an hour. You know, but it's an important point. Every time - for example, the other night I was reading the biography of Grover Cleveland, and I had forgotten that he was white too. It just didn't occur to me that Grover Cleveland was white. So Chris Matthews makes a very important point.

ARRELLANO: What is Chris Matthews thinking?

IZRAEL: Right, right, right. A-Train.

MARTIN: I don't know, I'm sure he meant well.

IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah, I hope that Chris Matthews' shoes are made out of bubble gum because his foot is in his mouth so much recently. It's kind of ridonkulous for him to have said that, but again, it comes as no surprise. I think that, you know, I mean, here you had a 70-minute speech where, you know, President Obama talked about everything from health care to the wars and things like that, and it's interesting that, you know, somebody as high up on the punditography as Chris Matthews would be focusing on the race of the president.

IZRAEL: You know, Gustavo, I could live another 85, 150 years and not hear another white person use the term post-racial. What about you?

ARRELLANO: Oh my God, it is one of the most idiotic terms of the past couple of years. Post-racial, I think post-racial is one of those words like proactive or zeitgeist that people who aren't smart use to try to make themselves out to be smart.

It obviously - Matthews contradicts himself. He says we're post-racial, and oh, by the way, President Obama, I forgot that he's black.

IZRAEL: Post-racial - my favorite is post-racial by all appearances. It's like really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARRELLANO: You're either post-racial, or you're not, and we've obviously not, if Matthews has to bring up the fact where he's actually trying to talk as an enlightened white man, saying - actually, President Obama's no longer black for me, for an hour. After that, he's totally black for me.

IFTIKHAR: Holy mackerel.

MARTIN: You know, that's a good point. You know, I was thinking about this because I was trying to figure out - you know, we've talked about the whole Harry Reid thing and Harry Reid saying that he has no Negro dialect except if he wants to, and I was thinking, okay, it's annoying, but why exactly?

MARTIN: I forgot he was from Buffalo. I don't even see that he's from Buffalo.

He loved Buffalo, and he'd talk about it all the time, and was that anything - was there anything wrong with that? No, and so for people to constantly say, well, I don't even notice your race, is there something wrong with it? I actually think I'm a very nice toasty brown, and I have no problem with it. And I don't understand why this is something we have constantly sort of apologize for and look beyond. That's the...

IZRAEL: Michel...

MARTIN: I think that's the kind of the feeling.

IZRAEL: ...you are a toasty brown, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you, doll. Thank you, doll.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: And for those of you that sometimes forget that your black friends are black, I do have a piece up on TheRoot.com, that - "10 Ways to Remind Your White Friends That You're Still Black." Now...

MARTIN: Jimi, you lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: You know what? But there was another reaction to President Obama's speech. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, he mouthed the words not true when President Barack Obama criticized the Supreme Court's campaign finance decision. A-Train?

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: Disrespectful, but you know what? I mean, at least he didn't scream out you lie like some people.

IFTIKHAR: That's true, but I think that he had his...

MARTIN: Just for people who don't remember what I'm talking about, what we're joking about...

IFTIKHAR: Joe Wilson.

MARTIN: ...for people who don't remember is that Joe Wilson, during the president's joint address to Congress earlier yelled out, you lie. And, of course, many people thought that was just completely inappropriate.

RUDIN: You know, Joe Wilson was a white guy, by the way. It just occurred to me.

MARTIN: I completely forgot about that.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Really?

MARTIN: I forgot about that. (unintelligible) I totally forgot about that.

IFTIKHAR: Wow.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Jimi was asking, do you think that was disrespectful of him? And I have to remember, you know, some people are saying that they thought the president was disrespectful to talk about the Supreme Court decision in front of the court with them sitting there. So, I don't know. What's your take, as our resident lawyer?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, well, president - well, first of all, you know, for people who don't know, President Obama was talking about the recent Supreme Court decision, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which essentially, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Alito, the court held that corporations, labor unions and other organizations had the right under the First Amendment to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the outcomes of election, which essentially means in 2012, we might see our first Wal-Mart, Halliburton, Doritos president. So, you know, for many people who want to see campaign finance reform, this is probably the most ridonkulous Supreme Court decision that we could've ever have seen.

And so I actually think that, you know, President Obama was doing a great service, because he was essentially talking to both chambers of Congress, saying that, you know, this, you know, flies in the face of what federal election law and, you know, the Constitution had said for so many years. And for, you know, Justice Samuel, you know, Don't Call Me a Member of the Elite-o, you know, to mouth, not true, was his own Joe-Wilson-you-lie moment. And, you know, you're seeing a lot of conservative Republicans, you know, sort of pushing back and trying to spin it, you know, towards President Obama, but I think that Justice Alito was in the wrong.

MARTIN: Really? Ken, what do you think?

RUDIN: Well, I think both sides did something wrong. First of all, true, the president could do whatever he wants. It's the State of the Union. But, you know, I mean, had George Bush denounced the Supreme Court about Guantanamo or anything they wanted in a State of the Union address with the members of the Supreme Court right there, I think it would've been - one, certainly unprecedented, but two, you could do that in a press conference, you could do that in a statement. I don't think you'd do it at the State of the Union. I thought the forum - the venue was wrong.

MARTIN: Why? Why? Can you help me with that? Because my rule of thumb is if you're going to say something about somebody, say it to their face as opposed to when they're not there to - now, of course, they can't respond, right?

RUDIN: Well...

MARTIN: They can't stand up. But they have other venues. They have - he can't stand up and address them at the Supreme Court. He cannot.

RUDIN: I used to think maybe...

MARTIN: Unless he's invited to do so.

RUDIN: Maybe I'm naive, and I probably am, but it just seems like a State of the Union is more of - is not a political pep rally. It's not something to rally the troops and get your side to yell and the others to jeer or to lecture. But having said that, the difference between Barack Obama and the Supreme Court is Barack Obama by definition, by being president, he's a political person. The Supreme Court should not be political...

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

RUDIN: ...is not political. They're not running for office, and they should not be agreeing, nodding their head yes. They should not be clapping, and nor should Samuel Alito be shaking his head and saying no.

MARTIN: The Supreme Court's not political. That's a new one.

ARELLANO: One quick point to Ken...

RUDIN: Well, that's a very good point.

IZRAEL: Hold on.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Gustavo. I'm sorry.

ARELLANO: No. No. I agree with Ken. It's not supposed to be political - State of the Unions - but they are. I mean, I remember going back to Bush I and Clinton. Whenever - if Clinton was saying a speech, the Democrats would cheer and roar and the Republicans would stand or sit stoned-face. And it - that's what happens with every single president, depending on their political affiliation.

I do agree President Obama maybe shouldn't have been so forthcoming, especially at a time where I wanted to hear more about how he's going to help out my parents find jobs and my cousins, and all that. But, at the same time, Alito - the Supreme Court, we know it's biased. We know that, but it's at least supposed to have the appearances of being impartial. By Alito so expressedly(ph) being disgusted, I think that sets a disturbing precedent that who knows what's going to happen from that? He should've sat stoned-faced like his colleagues Scalia and Clarence Thomas and the rest of the gang there.

MARTIN: And another thing I want to say about the word bias is that, you know, one person's bias is another person's deeply held conviction, which is transparent...

ARELLANO: That's true.

MARTIN: ...based on who selected - so I just want to sort of highlight that. Arsalan, one more word on this before we move on.

IFTIKHAR: Well, and very quickly, the Supreme Court, with the Bush v. Gore decision, entered into the political realm. And so, you know, you look at people...

RUDIN: Sure.

IFTIKHAR: ...you know, this sort of the what we call the Rats Pack - the Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia faction of the Supreme Court, which has been the most activist, you know, in recent time - has really entered into the political realm, as well.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Gustavo Arrellano and Ken Rudin.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Okay. This from the world of sports: Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton suspended - go figure - for the rest of the season by NBA Commissioner David Stern for bringing guns to the locker room. Wow.

MARTIN: Jimi, do you want to remind people why? Or do you want me to remind people that they each had admitted that they brought a gun into the locker room, violating a provision added to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement in 2005? Apparently, they had a dispute stemming from a card game on a team flight. That's - I don't know. I don't know. That's a - yeah.

IZRAEL: Thank you. Well, yeah. And doesn't everybody bring guns to, you know, to settle disputes about cards? Gustavo.

ARELLANO: I'm packing heat right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARELLANO: The heat being my pen, of course. The NBA really should be called the No Fun League, and that doesn't say that carrying guns is fun.

IZRAEL: Aw, boo.

ARELLANO: But Stern just - he's vicious. He has this obsession with trying to crack down on every and any infraction if it's not addressed...

IZRAEL: Come on.

IFTIKHAR: No. No.

IZRAEL: No. No. No.

ARELLANO: I do think that. That said, Arenas and Crittenton, a boneheaded move. I think it should've been the Wizards who suspended them, and frankly, gone down harsh on them. Stern has other responsibilities, other matters to - that are more important, I think, for the league's sake than Arenas and Crittenton doing their thing. I think that should've been more of a Wizards' disciplinary action than from Stern.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I mean first of all...

IZRAEL: A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: I got to pushback a little, Gustavo.

ARELLANO: Go for it.

IFTIKHAR: Let's not forget that Commissioner David Stern, out of the three major leagues, is the most respected commissioner in major league sports today. And, you know, let's not forget that, yeah, you can talk about this from a Wizard's perspective, but you also have to talk about it from a league prospective.

You know, we had the situation with Plaxico Burress last year in the NFL where he pulled a Cheddar Bob on himself in a Manhattan nightclub. You know, essentially, you know, we have to send a strong and resounding message that our professional athletes - let's not forget that, you know, this suspension is going to cost Arenas $7.4 million of his $16.1 million salary this season, and, you know, he has four years remaining of a $111 million contract. You know, the commissioner did absolutely the right thing. For most of us who are sports junkies, it was a forgone conclusion that Arenas was going to be suspended.

MARTIN: Well, can I just ask Jimi about this? You know, here's my thing on this. I don't get into the legalities of it, because, you know, that's somebody else's area. But that - I'm thinking about the way gun violence is ravaging the African-American community, especially young black males. And for these men at this level to think that they need a gun to resolve a card game dispute, what message does that send to these kids out here who don't have the resources, don't have the skills? Get therapy, okay, call, like - I mean, do something. But I just, from my standpoint, Jimi, I don't know. Do you think it's too harsh or? I...

IZRAEL: No. No. I think it was just harsh enough, and I hope that they play again, but I hope they play again and they kind of put the message out there that guns aren't fly. You know, guns aren't toys. They're not anything to be the punch line of, you know, secret jokes. You know, guns kill people.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

IZRAEL: And...

MARTIN: What if they had been playing around with these guns and some guy picking up the towels got hit?

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: Tell me, would that be okay? I mean, that's not...

IFTIKHAR: Of course not.

MARTIN: You know...

IZRAEL: I believe, for the record, they were unloaded. But...

IFTIKHAR: They were unloaded.

IZRAEL: But Crittenton did load one of them in jest, I guess.

IFTIKHAR: And let's not forget the next day, you know, Gilbert Arenas did the two-finger gun salute, you know, during the team huddle.

MARTIN: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: I mean, it's ridonkulous.

MARTIN: Yeah. And, anyway, Jimi, before we let you go, because I know - okay, try to collect yourself. I know you're still upset about the whole Conan situation, so if you could try to just, you know, deep breath while we talk about the whole Conan-Leno thing, try to maintain. And...

RUDIN: Whoops.

IZRAEL: Okay.

MARTIN: ...I know you are. And I also know that your favorite person, Oprah, had Jay Leno...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...on this week to talk about it. And let me just play a short clip so that you can gather your thoughts.

IZRAEL: Sure. Drop it.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TV SHOW, "OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

OPRAH WINFREY: Have you talked to Conan in person after all of this?

JAY LENO: I haven't talked to him since all this. No. I haven't. I haven't.

WINFREY: Did you want to pick up the phone?

LENO: Yeah, but it didn't seem appropriate.

WINFREY: Why?

LENO: I don't know. I think it - let things cool down, and maybe we'll talk, you know.

WINFREY: Were any of the things that he said about you hurtful?

LENO: No. They were jokes. And that's okay. I mean...

WINFREY: So jokes don't hurt you.

LENO: It's what we do, you know? You can't - it's like being a fighter and say, when you got punched in the head, did it hurt? Well, yeah. But you're a fighter. That's what you do.

IZRAEL: Oy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: That's so unfortunate. That's so unfortunate to see Leno just kind of wimp out like that. You know what? Jay Leno needs to man up. You know, and you go onto Oprah. Oprah, you're sitting there riding Oprah's confessional couch, talking about, you know, this that or a third. He should've hoped in one his 200 cars, made it over to Conan's pad, went over to IHOP and just hugged it out.

You know, I mean it's all business and we all know that, right? But, you know, I mean but, you know, when you're a writer or when you're a comedian or when you're any kind of artist, it's kind of you against the machine, and you'd want to think that if one of your boys, you know, came up on you - came up on your show or came up on something you were doing, you want to think that they'd be man enough to come and see you, not go see the lunchroom attendant or somebody else, you know, who might have a listening ear.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. Are you saying that he shouldn't have gone on Oprah's show? He shouldn't have gone on. (unintelligible)

IZRAEL: He should not have gone on Oprah's show. It makes him look even worse than he looks.

MARTIN: Ken has...

RUDIN: Why does he look bad at all? I mean, first of all, they took away his job. They gave - he was the number one guy. They gave it to somebody who I don't think is that funny, but does have a following.

IZRAEL: Hey, now.

RUDIN: I mean, he's not - and...

MARTIN: But Ken's point, what about the fact he was number one? He had the number one show, and they took it away from him. So why is he...

RUDIN: And they gave it to somebody who has far less of fewer viewers, and then now everybody says that well, Leno should apologize or Leno should, you know, console Conan. That's ridiculous.

MARTIN: What's up with that?

IZRAEL: Well, and people always embrace the cake and circus. You know, I mean, Conan was really, in my opinion, he had a higher grade of humor. You know, he wasn't relying on, you know, belch and fart jokes to get through the night.

MARTIN: Thank you for that, Jimi.

IFTIKHAR: Well, to Ken's point, I think, you know, the people who have really gotten away with something here is NBC. I mean, the network has really screwed the pooch in this whole, you know, fiasco, and they have really gotten a free pass on this. You know...

MARTIN: Could we get it out of the gastric level, please? In fact, up to the...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean...

IFTIKHAR: No I mean, seriously. You know, instead of focusing on, you know, the network's failings here, we've devolved it into sort of like a high school dispute between, you know, two prom kings.

MARTIN: I understand. Gustavo, do you want to have a final thought on this before we let you go?

ARELLANO: Yeah. Jay Leno, I've always despised. He's just lame.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: That's right. That's right.

ARELLANO: That said...

RUDIN: He's worse than Hitler.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: No. Oh, no.

ARELLANO: ...the truly bad people in this was NBC, the corporate of NBC. They're the ones who ultimately have egg on their face, because it's true: Jay Leno, even though I don't like him, he was number one. And then for NBC to arbitrarily say, okay. You're going to retire in five years and you're going to give it Conan, it was one - I think it's going to be one of the more ridicules decisions ever made in television, and that's saying a lot.

MARTIN: It's funny how where, it's always two-and-two. It always comes out to two for Team Leno and two for Team Conan. I wonder why is it?

IFTIKHAR: It's the Barbershop.

MARTIN: Well, it's the diversity of the Shop.

IZRAEL: That's right.

MARTIN: Anyway, Jimi. Well, thanks...

IZRAEL: Bring back Arsenio.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thanks, everybody.

Jimi Izrael is 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. Gustavo Arellano writes the "Ask a Mexican" column for the Orange County Weekly. He's also an author and a food critic. He joined us from Irvine, California. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, the founder of themuslimguy.com and a legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. And Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor, our Political Junkie. They were here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thanks all, so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

ARELLANO: Gracias.

RUDIN: Bring back Jack Parr.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today.

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