'Shop Talk'- Republicans 'Make It Rain' At Bondage Club

From the Republican National Committee scandal involving a then-staffer who charged a visit to a sex club on a corporate credit card, from the dust-up between former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and rapper and actor LL Cool J — no topic is off limits for our Barbershop Guys. Host Michel Martin sits in the shop with writer Jimi Izrael, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and Republican strategist Marcus Skelton.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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,�Sports Illustrated�reporter Pablo Torre, syndicated columnist�Ruben�Navarrette and back with us, Republican strategist Marcus Skelton. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer) Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, what's good? Welcome to the shop.

Mr. MARCUS SKELTON (Republican Strategist): Hey, what's going on?

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): Hey, man.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist): How's it going?

Mr. IZRAEL: Helter Skelton back with us for the first time. What's up, man, thank you so much for coming back to the shop.

Mr. SKELTON: Oh, no problem. I'm glad to be back. And it seems like a pretty exciting week. So I know exactly why you brought me in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: I know, right?

MARTIN: You're kidding, right? Be gentle, Jimi, his allergies are killing him.

Mr. SKELTON: I hope you brought plenty of one-dollar bills.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of groaning)

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know what? It's so weird.

MARTIN: Explain, Jimi, what he's talking about.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, it was supposed to be a really quiet week in political news with the health-care overhaul now law and Congress in recess, but earlier this week, RNC chairman Michael Steele came under fire for the committee's lavish spending, including - holy mackerel - dropping $2,000 at a Hollywood strip club. In fact, I think Steele's got a whole new theme song wherever he goes. Somebody drop that right about now.

(Soundbite of song, "Make It Rain")

Mr. FAT JOE (Rapper): (Rapping) I make it rain. I make it rain.

Mr. IZRAEL: That's right.

(Soundbite of song, "Make It Rain")

Mr. JOE: (Rapping) I'm in this (beep). Got a handful of stacks...

MARTIN: That's so cold.

(Soundbite of song, "Make It Rain")

Mr. JOE: (Rapping) I make it rain. I make it rain. Make it rain on them...

MARTIN: That is so wrong. That's so wrong.

(Soundbite of song, "Make It Rain")

Mr. JOE: (Rapping) I make it rain on them...

Mr. SKELTON: I'm glad it's censored appropriately.

MARTIN: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. I just want to point out, this is the clean version. I just want to clarify one thing. Michael Steele, chairman Steele was not actually at this club. But the Republican National Committee did treat a group of young donors to this night on the town. The Web site Daily Caller broke the story and found that the RNC had spent more than also, there's other spending that's at issue, not just the strip club, which is a particularly spicy strip club, as I understand - not that I've ever been there.

But they spent more than $17,000 on private jet travel, and more than $12,000 on limos in February. So, there you have it.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, it's weird. Thank you, Michel. Ruben, the R - man, look, correct me here if I'm wrong, but the Republicans call themselves the Grand Old Party. Now, if these revelations are true, well, so far he hasn't denied anything, man. Wasn't Michael Steele just wasn't he just living up to the name?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Listen, I'm just bummed out that we couldn't orchestrate a field trip to better understand this story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who's this we? We? I guess I just would've been the designated driver, right?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's right. We need one of those. We need one of those.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: I'm not going there. Go ahead, Ruben.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think, you know, Michael Steele is caught in this weird place, obviously, not just because of this story, but because there's a lot of animosity among Republicans against Steele. And I'm not sure if our hearts should go out to the Republicans who are trying to oust Steele and have been for some time, or should go out to Steele because he's being attacked in this way. And I don't mean just this story. I mean all the various instances of leaks and things that come out to try get rid of Michael Steele and replace him with somebody else.

And I think a lot of the stuff that Steele has been doing has been rubbing people the wrong way. Sometimes he'll say things just recently, he'll talk about how to, you know, maybe we shouldn't demagogue this thing about - make this issue about race or something. And a lot of the white Republicans out there who are trying to scare people, frankly, resent the fact that Steele is undermining them. So there's that back story.

But in terms of the actual, you know, story about the club, obviously this runs right into the buzz saw of family values, social etiquette, the whole notion of Republicans sort of preaching to, you know, conservative, oftentimes white voters in the South, saying that they are holier than the other party because this runs right against that.

So we've gone from, you know, in one generation we've gone from a chicken in every pot to I'll promise you a dance in every lap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Nice.

MARTIN: That was nice.

Mr. IZRAEL: Very nice.

MARTIN: Oh, I would've been sorry to have missed that. But Marcus, what about it? I mean, in, I guess, look, I take the point that you can be both tremendously gifted and tremendously, you know, lunk-headed at the same time about issues. But isn't a bit much to have somebody who, I mean, the RNC chairman's job is mainly to fundraise and also to provide sort of leadership for the party. But doesn't this send a message about just this kind of crazy spending and not a lot of attention to, you know, fiscal realities at a time when a lot of American families are suffering?

And - I don't know. Marcus, how are you responding to all of this?

Mr. SKELTON: Well, first of all, Michael Steele...

MARTIN: And I assume you weren't invited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKELTON: Yeah, exactly. I need to get Michael Steele's number so I can make that happen. But if you look, Michael Steele is winning in states that we haven't won in before, and you got to look at that. And then the fundraising numbers are actually up. And I don't know if people have fundraised before. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. I mean, I don't make a lot of money, and they can ask for my check in McDonalds or something like that. But if I'm writing a $25,000 check to the National Committee, you know, that's going to be a nicer as - you're going to go to a nicer place.

And money is in politics. I mean, if you look at how much it cost to go to an Inauguration on both sides of the aisle, you know, money is in politics. And I think that there are some people out there that are trying - that don't agree with some of the things that the chairman is doing, but when it comes down to it, he's won races in states that we haven't won before. You have to look at that. I think even if you look at the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, there's some angst in his party, and they're trying to get him out. And I think, you know, when you're a leader, someone's always trying to pick on you. And I think Steele - Michael Steele is seeing that.

Mr. IZRAEL: You know...

MARTIN: You think he's doing a good job?

Mr. SKELTON: He's winning. He's winning elections. You look in Virginia, we've picked up a couple seats in the State House and the State Senate. You know, places like New Jersey, places like Massachusetts, you know, and he's getting the money there for the candidates that need it.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think?

Mr. IZRAEL: Martin, do you think...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Do you think his color makes him more - his shenanigans even that much more conspicuous?

Mr. SKELTON: No, I don't think so. I think what it is, is Michael Steele said he was going to shake things up in the party, and the first thing he did was clean house in the RNC. So, you know, I think one of those thing - you know, some of that, that does have something to play with it.

Mr. IZRAEL: But he's stunting rapper style, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: He's spending money on private jets. He's making it rain on the strippers, man. I don't know, man. I don't know.

Mr. SKELTON: I think the staffer that bought strippers is new, but private jets is something that's been in politics for a while.

MARTIN: No, he's old now. He's gone. Goodbye.

Mr. SKELTON: Yeah, he's - you got to make sure that's clear.

MARTIN: Well, and...

Mr. SKELTON: And, you know, in any company, sometimes people abuse the expense accounts. And I don't think that - this might be a sad road to go down if you start looking at everybody's expenses, and see what happens.

Mr. IZRAEL: True that.

MARTIN: But why shouldn't donors be able to look at expenses? I mean, people give them this money. This isn't - you know, somebody has to give them the money. Don't they have a right to expect that it be handled properly? Or do you just think that that $2,000 at the strip club was an appropriate expenditure for high rollers? Because the whole point was, these were young high rollers.

Mr. SKELTON: Right. But exactly what happened is, they let the person go, even before the story broke. So that showed there wasn't due diligence inside the committee. But I'm thinking if the Democratic National Committee wants to go through and scrub expenses reports, I think that's a hard road, because you'll be judged by the same standards.

MARTIN: What does Pablo think?

Mr. TORRE: Well, to me - and this is Pablo - it means that - I mean, the way that I took it was that it contributed to this general narrative about Michael Steele, you know, and sort of the odd personality he's become. I think a lot of people - I mean, they remember him because, you know, he uses hip-hop slang. You know, he's trying to be the cool guy running the Republican Party, the new face. And to me, I mean, obviously, his role and his success as a fundraiser is his ultimate evaluation. But I think beyond that I - I mean, he also pushed back against Rush Limbaugh, you know, which got him a little bit of guff...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

Mr. TORRE: ...a little while back. And so you wonder about, you know, what is his role? Is he trying to be the new, hip face of the Republican Party? You know, is this one of those things where, you know, his oversight is sort of a reflection on that kind of persona he's, you know, he's trying to develop. I mean, it's confusing to me.

MARTIN: Hmm. That's interesting. Can I just ask Jimi before we move on to the next thing: What do you think?

Mr. IZRAEL: I do think his color colors his - well, I think Steele's catching a lot of the flack because of his color. I think it makes him more conspicuous. And, you know, Marcus mentioned that, you know, donations may be up, but there are reports that the big donors are snapping their purses shut, and they have been for like a minute now. So I don't - I think Steele's color is really shaking people up.

MARTIN: But can't both things be true?

Mr. IZRAEL: It's shaking up the whole party.

MARTIN: Can't you be both a person bringing needed change and also polarizing, and also have a blind spot about something? Can't all these three things be true at once? Can't you have some administrative problems...

Mr. IZRAEL: I don't think...

MARTIN: ...and be...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...an exciting figure, you know, and telling people some truth that they need to hear and also be messing up?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: This is Ruben, real quickly. I think that it's not Steele that has the blind spot. I think it's those white Republicans who put Steele in that office because they wanted to inoculate themselves against this idea that they...

Mr. SKELTON: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...couldn't criticize a black president without being called racist. So they thought they - they were getting cute and clever and they said, we're going to put a black person in this role. And guess what? Michael Steele ended up coming out saying he's going to push Republicans to do comprehensive immigration reform. They didn't like that. Michael Steele calls people out, saying that's racist; don't say that. They don't like that. Michael Steele reaches out to black folks and Latinos. They don't like that. So basically, what they wanted was a figurehead, and they got something they didn't bargain for. So right on.

MARTIN: Preach it, Ruben.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's our weekly Barbershop conversation, and we're having it with Jimi Izrael, Ruben Navarrette and Pablo Torre. They're all journalists. We're also here with Republican strategist Marcus Skelton.

Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. You know what? Who knew that Sarah Palin was down like this? You know, former Alaska governor and current Fox News analyst Sarah Palin, she made headlines this week with a little dust-up with rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J. Michel, what was that about?

MARTIN: Well, you know - OK, here's a - LL Cool J was supposed to be part of Sarah Palin's new special, "Real American Stories." It aired last night. But the promo trailer, he tweeted that Fox lifted an old interview I gave in 2008 to somebody else, and that they're misrepresenting this to the public in order to promote Sarah Plain's show, and he was not feeling that. So then Fox dropped the rapper with a rather sniffy statement that said that "Real American Stories" features uplifting tales, and it appears that Mr. Smith does not wish to be associated with a program that could serve as an inspiration to others. So they dropped him from the program. So there you go.

Mr. TORRE: Well, they also knocked his fledgling acting career. Let's not forget.

MARTIN: I don't think it's fledgling.

Mr. TORRE: I know. That's the term they used.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Wow.

MARTIN: There you go. That's right. That's right. You're right. It says: We wish him the best with his fledgling acting career.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: There, you're right, Pablo.

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, not only does he have four books, but he's got 29 acting credits. So I think the acting thing is working out for him a little bit.

Marcus, I don't know that you caught the show last night, but what did you make of Palin and Fox News versus LL Cool J?

Mr. SKELTON: Well, matter of fact...

Mr. IZRAEL: What did you make of the whole thing?

Mr. SKELTON: Matter of fact, I did actually watch the show. I think, you know, for Fox News as a station, it's genius to start a rap beef with somebody. I mean, folks in the rap industry...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKELTON: ...have done that for years. So, you look at the fact that it drew attention to it - look, LL Cool J will get some new people. For the people who watch Fox News, these hockey moms that secretly listen to LL. So they'll do that. And then Sarah Palin will pick up some new fans. So I think...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right on.

Mr. SKELTON: ...that both sides break out even in the end.

MARTIN: Well, I don't think this was Fox's news division putting this program on. I'm not sure. I think it was their entertainment division. I think it's worth remembering that - you know, and I know that there's a lot of argument about whether there really is a line between news and entertainment, but most of the broadcast networks have both, news and entertainment, so, you know.

Mr. TORRE: And this - and this is Pablo, and this was, you know, I watched it last night, and it was pretty innocuous. I mean, there was no sort of polemic angle to it. It was not opinionated very much at all. It was very much tinkling piano chords and, you know, sort of the Vaseline-on-the-lens, soft-focus kind of deal. And if anything, I mean, obviously, I think Sarah Palin's best future is probably in the media and she was, you know, she was very capable at that. I just think it was kind of a wash. I mean, it wasn't really groundbreaking at all. It kind of almost had the feel of something like an infomercial for inspiring stories.

MARTIN: Hmm. Did you watch it, Jimi?

Mr. IZRAEL: I didn't. I missed it.

MARTIN: You recorded it. You DVR'ed it. Don't even start. That's all right.

Mr. IZRAEL: I was on my "SpongeBob SquarePants" thing, so I...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'm happy to say...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, I didn't.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yup. Yup. I opted for "Grey's Anatomy." Yup.

Mr. IZRAEL: When you think about it, it's like tomato/tomahto, you know, I mean so it's kind of like a wash between "SpongeBob SquarePants" and Sarah Palin. So I...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You know, it's interesting what - yeah, this is Ruben. It's interesting what Republicans have going with the hip-hop community or rappers in general, or just this kind of bogeyman thing that they've developed. The Democratic Party does it, too. They just have different bogeymen. They talk about big business and rich people and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah and - but it's sort of like how you rally the base against this.

And if you think about what it is that rappers and people in the music business represent to the Republican Party, it just falls apart right away because I think there's plenty of - I mean, we're - in the first segment, we're talking about the fact that it's OK if you send people to strip clubs, but you're not OK with suggestive lyrics in a rap song? I mean, how does that all work together? And I think it's mostly just sort of a confused message about how you stoke your base.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And I said, Democrats do it, too, and Republicans do it, too. And everybody needs a boogeyman, and this is their boogeyman.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Let me just clarify one thing before you move on, is that per the Associated Press, it was Fox News Channel produced this piece. So there you - that's an interesting thing in and of itself is, you know, what's up with that, you know? I don't know. It's an interesting question, having worked on long-form documentaries myself and this whole question of whether it's OK to appropriate an interview given for other purposes and to repurpose it. I mean, I think that's the other, hidden piece of this...

Mr. SKELTON: Right.

MARTIN: ...that we really don't have time to unpack - like, is that OK or not? If you give an interview to somebody for one purpose and then they decide to use it for something else, do you get to say something and say, I don't appreciate that? I don't know. Anyway, there you go. So that's that.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right. OK. Well, all right. Switching gears a little bit, tomorrow is the tip off to college basketball's biggest weekend. The Men's NCAA Final Four matchups are on Saturday night, and the championship game will go prime time on Monday, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, the four - well, yeah. Pablo, what do you think?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah, I mean...

MARTIN: Break it down.

Mr. TORRE: So the - yeah this...

MARTIN: And, excuse me, the women are this weekend too, if you don't mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: My bad. My bad.

Mr. TORRE: That's a great match-up, actually - UConn and Baylor.

MARTIN: I know.

Mr. TORRE: But, let's - I mean, the story for the Final Four this year is really, that it's completely wide open. And I think you have - I mean, two five seeds in Butler and Michigan State who people didn't really expect to be there. Then you have a power, Duke, which has fallen off in recent years. And then, of course, you have, on the other side of that, West Virginia. And for me, I mean I, as a sports fan, love cosmopolitanism. I like the influx of foreign talent. I like spreading the net wide. But what I love about this Final Four is the provincialism.

It's the fact that you have Butler from Indiana right here in Indianapolis, homegrown. You have Michigan State - Tom Izzo recruits pretty much exclusively from Michigan. And to have those two sort of smaller nets competing against the national power like a Duke, for example, even a West Virginia - I mean, I love the fact that you're having kind of a bit of an underdog demographic story going on at the Final Four, going up against the big money powers...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

Mr. TORRE: ...that spread the net so wide.

MARTIN: Hmm. Ruben, who do you like?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Butler. I think I like Butler. I mean, I called Duke. I think everybody's going to say, you know, you go with what you know and - but I think Pablo's exactly right. The Cinderella aspect of, you know, Indiana is baseball - is basketball territory, excuse me. It's basketball territory in the way that Texas is football territory, and this would be incredible for that school. I've been there before. I've spoken at that school. It's going to be a real shot in the arm. It's great.

MARTIN: I don't know. Marcus, what do you think?

Mr. IZRAEL: No bias there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Full disclosure.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right. Right. Right.

Mr. SKELTON: Well, first of all, since I'm from the state of Maryland, Duke cannot win. And I'm going to put the Rush Limbaugh curse on them. I hope they fail.

MARTIN: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKELTON: And so I'm picking West Virginia. I think West Virginia's got a talented ball club. And it is just - in that conference, it's such a tough conference, that they're going to pull this thing out. They're going to beat Duke on Saturday and then just win the whole thing.

MARTIN: Jimi, who do you like?

Mr. IZRAEL: Duke. I like the way they took Baylor down. You know, I mean it was a really rough fight, but I mean, it was a great game. So I'm rolling with Duke.

MARTIN: You know what I was curious about, Pablo? Why do so many people love to hate Duke?

Mr. TORRE: I mean, it's...

MARTIN: What's up with that? Why do they love to hate Duke?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: They're the Yankees, baby. They're the Yankees.

Mr. TORRE: Exactly. They're the Yankees of college basketball and they're, you know, the elite kids who are monied. They have this tradition. They have a coach who's, you know, not the most likeable guy. I think he's not going to, you know, crack jokes at press conference. He's not going to get buddy-buddy with the fans. I mean, it's exactly. They're the Yankees of college basketball, and they're just - I mean, you might get into the racial undertones of it. They are quite suburban in tone. I mean, historically over the years, they tend to favor those types of players. But I think it's really just the success they've had historically and...

MARTIN: Well, can we root for the fact that they graduate most of their players, no matter what color they are?

Mr. TORRE: Oh, I think they...

MARTIN: Could we root for that?

Mr. TORRE: Yeah. I think so.

MARTIN: Holler.

Mr. TORRE: It is notable that Bob Huggins of West Virginia, when he was at Cincinnati, his last most famous stop, had approximately a zero percent graduation rate. So I think Coach Hayes is doing something right at - over in Durham, North Carolina.

MARTIN: Okay, super fast, Pablo: the women.

Mr. TORRE: The women - I think, obviously, UConn is a big story, but Baylor - I mean, know the name Brittney Griner, a freshman, already the best player in women's basketball. It's going be quite a game.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Wow.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Well, we're going to be watching that. We're going to talk about the women next week - right, guys? Dead silence. Dead silence. OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKELTON: I'm going to follow women's basketball, so definitely.

MARTIN: That's right.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. He joined us from San Diego. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He joined us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. And Marcus Skelton is a Republican strategist as well grants adviser for the Higher Education Association in Washington, and he was here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Thank you all so much.

Mr. IZRAEL: Peace.

Mr. TORRE: Thanks.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Adios.

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