'Shop Talk': Golfer Tiger Wood's Deceased Father Featured In New Ad

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In this installment of our weekly Barbershop segment guest host Audie Cornish talks with journalists Ruben Navarrette who is a syndicated columnist for the San Diego Tribune, NPR's political editor Ken Rudin, Kevin Blackistone, national columnist for Internet sports blog AOL FanHouse, and Republican strategist Marcus Skelton. They discuss the continued turmoil Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele finds himself in and the growing calls for him to step down. They also discuss Virginia's proclamation of April being "Confederate Heritage Month" and the return of Tiger Woods to golf.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

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

It's time now for our weekly visit to the barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week, are syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Republican strategist Marcus Skelton, and national columnist for the Internet sports blog, AOL FanHouse, Kevin Blackistone and of course, our NPR political editor Ken Rudin. Thank you all for coming.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist): Thank you.

Mr. KEVIN BLACKISTONE (Columnist): Thank you.

CORNISH: All right, so our regular moderator, Jimi Izrael is off this week. Michel is away. I haven't been in a barbershop for, like, ten years.

Mr. KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Neither have I.

CORNISH: Okay, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: So, I'm just going to jump in and say, welcome, and take it easy on me. I am the substitute teacher.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Sure.

CORNISH: And topic one, Michael Steele. So, it's been another rough week for the Republican committee chairman. And the RNC's chief of staff actually resigned. A high-profile consulting firm severed ties with the organization. And Steele is also catching flack for his response to a question from ABC's George Stephanopoulos about whether he had a, quote, "slimmer margin of error as chairman," unquote, 'cause he's black. And here was Steele's response on "Good Morning America."

(Soundbite of show, "Good Morning America")

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): The bottom line is I hear my donors, I hear our base out there, I hear the leadership. I know a lot of people want to make more of it than there is, and, you know, those 71 percent on Capitol Hill, those unnamed Republicans who don't like me, well, I understand that, but I'll continue to work hard and try to win more races to get a majority in the Congress this November, get a majority in the Senate, win our governorships and get us ready to be competitive in 2012 with a nominee who will beat Barack Obama. That's what this is all about at the end of the day winning elections.

CORNISH: Marcus, a lot of folks within the party even took issue with Michael Steele's comment and inferred, you know, use of the race card. And, you know, can he keep taking these hits? Is there a bottoming out here?

Mr. MARCUS SKELTON (Republican Strategist): Well, I think as long as Michael Steele performs, I don't think there will be a bottoming out. You know, the most important thing an RNC chairman can do is win. I think he does have a point. I've been on the National Committee for Young Republicans. The media does pay a lot of attention to minorities. I wouldn't say that he's being pushed out because of race, but the media does pay more attention. We have an African-American chair in the Republican Party because it's a brand new thing and everybody's getting comfortable with the new conflict.

And I think that the issues in the fall are going to be the things that determine if Michael Steele stays there. As long as he's raised the money and getting it to where he needs to be, he'll be fine.

CORNISH: Ken, I know you've got to have some thoughts on this. I mean, it is about the money. And I would say that in the first quarter, not raising more than the Democrats at the height of the health debate isn't necessarily a good sign.

KEN RUDIN: Well, I would've thought that with the anger that's supposed to be out there regarding President Obama, the Republicans would've raised more money than they had. But Marcus is right in the sense that the Republicans did raise a record number $11.4 million in the month of March, although the Democrats did out-raise them.

The thing is, look, Howard Dean was a very controversial Democratic chairman, Rahm Emanuel, a lot of Democrats wanted him gone, but he did produce. He produced in 2006 when the Congress, the Democrats won a majority in Congress, and in 2008 when they won back the White House.

Now, like Michael Steele, we expect the Republicans to pick up Senate and House seats in November. That's likely to happen, but the last thing the Republicans want is this kind of distraction. They don't like the fact that Michael Steele may say this or that or the expenditures or the lesbian bondage club.

CORNISH: I don't think it was lesbian bondage, specifically, I think it was just a night club that happened to have a bondage theme.

RUDIN: Well, we could talk about that. As a matter of fact, I think we should spend the next 20 minutes talking about that. But the point is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I like Ken's version better.

RUDIN: Ruben is exactly correct. The point is...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Just roll with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: Republicans don't want that distraction. And I think that when his term is up in January, no matter how well or poorly the Republicans do in November, Michael Steele will not be renewed as chairman.

CORNISH: All right. Well, I also want to talk about this issue of Governor Bob McDonnell on Wednesday.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Oh, wait. This is Ruben, can I jump in?

CORNISH: Oh, sure, Ruben, you want to jump in on bondage? On...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: ...or on the Confederate History Month?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: On Michael Steele.

CORNISH: Okay.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Just quickly on Michael Steele. Michael Steele has made mistakes. The number one mistake he's made is that he tends to treat this job as a platform for himself. Look at me, look at me, it's a substitute for running for office. He's done everything but, you know, cut a rap album to say look at me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Now having said that, having said that, shame on the Republicans and shame on the Republican Party and shame on all those Republicans who are taking shots at Michael Steele. As I said last week and I'll say it again this week, they got more than they bargained for. They wanted a figurehead, someone who could inoculate them, a black chairman they could point to whenever they criticize a black president to say, hey, I'm not racist. Look, I have a black chairman in my party. And instead of a figurehead they got somebody who actually speaks his mind, who actually reaches out to minorities, who actually challenges the base. So, good for him, shame on them. They wanted him to sit there, be happy and be black, and that's all they wanted.

CORNISH: Okay, Kevin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Well I would just say that, you know, Michael Steele wasnt really the first choice for the GOP. They've been uncomfortable with him ever since he's been there. And really, the reason he got the job was because everybody else who was up for the job in the beginning had their own horrific problems and made them really unelectable for that position. And - but I would agree with Ruben, it is very much with Michael Steele, I think, he's somewhat narcissistic and they've been very uncomfortable with that. And he hasnt always been on message.

CORNISH: Is there such thing as somewhat narcissistic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: If you're just...

Mr. BLACKISTONE: I'm trying to be nice.

CORNISH: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's our weekly Barbershop segment and we're speaking with journalist Ruben Navarrette, Kevin Blackistone, Ken Rudin and Republican strategist Marcus Skelton.

So while we are still looking at the race card, I want to talk about Confederate History Month in Virginia and Governor Bob McDonnell. Because first he puts out a proclamation and then he says, whoops, I'm really sorry, I forgot to mention slavery. That's kind of a bummer. And he's apologized, but I mean, what do you even say about this?

Like with the Republicans scrambling, like you said, to deal with this thing with Steele or maybe deal with some kind of implications people have made with the Tea Party at times about race and the Tea Party. I mean, does this kind of compound a bad perception?

RUDIN: Well look, I dont know why anybody is bringing up slavery. That was such a minor thing with the Civil War.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: One of many factors.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: A footnote at best, right?

Mr. BLACKISTONE: A footnote, yeah, that's right.

RUDIN: Exactly, a P.S. The thing is, yes, Confederate slavery, Confederate Heritage Month was - has not been observed in Virginia since 2001. But the last time it was observed, Governor Jim Gilmore, a Republican, put in language to talk - specific anti-slavery language.

When Bob McDonnell decided this week to renew that proclamation, he removed that language and he said that was a distraction that was not what people cared about. And I think that it really hurt him how he could not see the anger, including from Doug Wilder who basically was neutral during last year's election which helped McDonnell win the election.

Sheila Johnson of BET was an important backer of Bob McDonnell. She was furious at the fact that he would remove that language. And he didnt see that controversy and I'm very surprised at that.

CORNISH: Yeah, Ruben, what are your thoughts?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Likewise, you know, I think that as our friend Roland Martin who's been a guest to the shop before said yesterday on CNN, you got to represent all of Virginia. You can't just represent white folks in Virginia. When you say that I take out the slavery language because people dont care about that, well what people are you talking about? Are you talking about white Virginians? And the fact that you have to deal with the whole population...

CORNISH: Well I dont think he said that people dont care.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...is (unintelligible) blind spot.

CORNISH: He said he wanted to focus on issues significant...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, ironically, he called it a distraction. I mean...

CORNISH: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...so what happened in return, a bigger distraction. You know, by virtue of taking it out, it became a bigger distraction. What we have here at the core though is a difference between how white Southerners and African-Americans nationally see that symbol, the Confederate flag. And if you're a white Southerner, you see it as a symbol of regional pride. It starts, you know, the rebellion, regional pride. It doesnt necessarily connote slavery. But if you're an African-American there's no other way to read it. So that, at the core of it, is this basic divide. And a more sensitive and more forward-thinking leader would have figured that out.

CORNISH: And it's also a constant discussion in Virginia, right, Marcus? I mean this is not new. He should have seen it coming.

Mr. SKELTON: Right. And I definitely think - you know, I listened to President Obama's remarks today and I think he was right on point with saying that the omission of course was a dumb idea. But it's a bigger conversation of how racism and the Civil War is still emotional issues in this country. And it's just funny sometimes in politics to see which battles they take and which battles they dont. I mean, you look at Michael Steele right now and no one's jumping to save - I dont see the Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson rally. We're going to keep Michael Steele in office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKELTON: I dont see that right now. But this - you know it's funny how that works. But Democrat or Republican, it's still an issue that we need to work with. We all need to figure out where our past success and failures are in American history and what do we do now with our past and how do we react and trust each other. And the president was right on when he - how he framed that argument.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, Marcus, you better be careful, brother, as soon as it gets back to the RNC that you're agreeing with the president, you'll be out by dinner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKELTON: Well it seems to me, the minute that you mention the word Confederate you've hit a red button issue. And it's...

CORNISH: Yeah, he could have said it was the celebration for the war of Northern aggression which is what...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: I'm from Tennessee where, you know...

Mr. SKELTON: And the ultimate intelligent way to approach it would be to call it the Civil War history month where you could examine both sides of the issue and bring everybody into the conversation.

CORNISH: All right, this leaves us plenty of time for obviously the most important news going on this week: Tiger Woods at Augusta. And the world's number one golfer, Tiger Woods, back on the links at the Masters tournament. Now this is the first time he has played competitively since his infidelity scandal and unfortunate car accident in Thanksgiving and...

RUDIN: He was playing competitively then too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: He was. He was. And here's a clip of him on Monday talking about his new approach to golf.

Mr. TIGER WOODS (Professional Golfer): I'm actually going to try and obviously not get as hot when I play, but then again, when I'm not as hot, I'm not going to be as exuberant either. I can't play one without the other. I made a conscious decision to try and tone down, you know, my negative outbursts. And, you know, consequently, I'm sure that my positive outbursts will be calmed down as well. And just trying to be more respectful of the game.

CORNISH: And Tiger, he seemed to pick up right where he left off before the scandal. He had the best opening round score he's ever posted at the Masters. And I know you're all anxious to talk about this, but there's one more clip I have to play and this is the Nike ad that debuted Wednesday on ESPN. And I just want to give people the image here who are not lucky enough to have seen it if that's possible: Picture of Tiger Woods with his trademark cap, black and white image, staring directly into the camera, soulfully, I think. And it's narrated by Tiger's late father Earl Woods.

(Soundbite of Nike ad)

Mr. EARL WOODS: Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was, I want to find out what your feelings are and did you learn anything?

CORNISH: All right, Kevin, you're a sports expert and I want to get to the golf, but the commercial. I mean, what is your take? Just creepy? Thoughtful?

Mr. BLACKISTONE: All right...

CORNISH: What was that?

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Thoughtful, not at all. Creepy, absolutely.

CORNISH: And the voice they got from a DVD biography with Earl Woods' voice on it...

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Right, who's been dead...

CORNISH: ...from 2004.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: ...since I think - right and he's been dead since 2006.

CORNISH: Yeah.

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Very odd. But Nike knew what they were doing. You know, at the end of the day, Tiger Woods is all about marketing. Even at his press conference the other day, he talked about how he hoped to get back in the good graces with sponsors. You know, here's a guy who was earning $100 million a year away from golf, becoming, you know, the first billionaire athlete. And at the end of the day thats really what he's always about.

And if you look back to the very first Nike commercial that Tiger did, the one in which Tiger and Nike colluded to portray Tiger as some type of transformative racial figure in America, you know, he didnt have any designs really to be that. He hasnt been that. And he won't be that. But it was all about attracting this new audience of people of color who otherwise hadn't paid attention to golf, hadn't bought golf gear, hadn't bought golf tickets, to get them involved in this commercial enterprise Tiger Woods, Inc. And that is really, to me, what he is out to repair.

CORNISH: Anyone else? Ken?

RUDIN: I agree with Kevin completely. The sadness is, of course is that perhaps maybe we could stop talking about the affairs and stop talking about race and start talking about him as a phenomenal golfer. I mean, when I look at Kobe Bryant, when I look at Jason Kidd, they've had things in their past involving women that were less than honorable...

CORNISH: Yeah.

RUDIN: ...but sometimes you'd like to see them perform.

CORNISH: Which I have to say is why I dont care about this story. Because to me, these people always make a comeback. I really havent seen a situation where people have said like, oh no, we really, Kobe, sorry, we just dont want - I mean they always come back. Like, what is everyone worried about?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It's also - go ahead, I'm sorry.

Mr. SKELTON: I was just going to say but not - you know it's not only in sports. I mean, just, you know, you turn on the television now and who do you see as a commentator but the former governor of New York who was just on yesterday so...

CORNISH: Right.

Mr. SKELTON: ...these bounce backs happen everywhere and not just in sports.

RUDIN: Newt Gingrich too. Newt Gingrich...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Quickly, you know this is a remarkable spot. This is a remarkable spot because Nike has doubled down on the scandal.

CORNISH: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Instead of just sort of running away from the scandal. It's in your face. They've said we're going to make something out of this scandal. We're going to put it right out there again and use a dead man's voice to do it. It is remarkably, you know, bold on the part of Nike. They got exactly what they were looking for. They got all this press because of it. But I agree it is creepy. But I'm just not - I've never seen anything like that.

CORNISH: Yeah, though these are the folks who brought us Charles Barkley's ad, I'm not a role model. I dont know if you remember all that.

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Right, exactly.

CORNISH: So they're in keeping with the theme.

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Right. It's definitely - the sort of the cinema of the Tiger Woods comeback, the voice of his father talking to him.

CORNISH: Yeah.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It seems like an Oscar-winning film, right. But I think what you're seeing is Tiger is more focused. All the other stuff he used to do on his free time. You know, if an accountant used to go to the bar at night and now he's in trouble, he's not going to the bar no more, he's going to stay more focused on work because he can't go anywhere else. So you're going to actually probably see Tiger Woods get better at golf because his only out is going to be, honey, I'm going to the golf course.

CORNISH: So we have just two minutes left. I mean, does that mean he needs to win the Masters to really fully restore the image?

RUDIN: No, look...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It would help. It would help.

RUDIN: Yeah, but think of Muhammad Ali. I mean he was out for a long time. In 1971 he comes back, loses to Joe Frazier. He didnt have to win that fight. It would have been nice if he did but he didnt. But his greatness was in years to come. So even if Woods doesnt win this year, he still has other opportunities to win and return to greatness.

CORNISH: Though I'm not holding out on that as a comparison. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: It doesnt work for me.

Mr. SKELTON: I think golf is different. You dont have to - you dont win every single golf tournament. As long as you place in the top five of every golf tournament, you're a legend in golf. And Tiger's already I think about a handful of majors away from becoming a legend more than he is now in golf. So I think he's still on pace to do that.

CORNISH: Ruben, we got a minute left.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: For appearances, it looks like the big difference between Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods is one man had character and the other doesnt. And it's unfortunate but, you know, to the tantrums of throwing of the golf club, you know - and talk about being narcissistic...

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: The worst things you can say about Tiger that showed up in the scandal was not the infidelity but just the me, me, me, me, me of how he approaches his life. And that ultimately is going to go - going to be his enduring legacy. No matter how good a golfer he is, he's got to take that with him.

CORNISH: Yeah, and it's not so clear from this ad or this week if much of that has really changed. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. He joined us from San Diego. Kevin Blackistone, a national columnist for the internet sports blog AOL FanHouse and a panelist on ESPN "Around the Horn". Marcus Skelton is a Republican strategist as well as grant advisor for Higher Education Association in Washington, D.C. And Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. They were all kind enough to join us from our Washington studios. Thank you guys so much.

Mr. BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

RUDIN: Ruben, that me, me, me, I didnt know you were involved in opera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: And thats our program for today. I'm Audie Cornish and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin returns on next week. Let's talk more on Monday.

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