World News Roundup: Sudan, Poland, Kyrgyzstan

Guests

Gwen Thompkins, NPR's East Africa correspondent
David Green, NPR's Moscow correspondent
Eric Westervelt, NPR's European correspondent

The people of Sudan went to the polls for the first time in a quarter century. A plane crash in a Russian forest is a cruel reminder of old wounds between Russia and Poland. And a coup d'etat in Kyrgyzstan raises questions about a key U.S. airbase.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In three countries, the course of history shifts visibly in very different ways: a bloody coup d'etat in remote Central Asia, the crash of a president's plane in Eastern Europe, an election in East Africa, each a window into both the past and the future. And in today's interconnected world, American policy and American interests figure in all three.

Today, we check in with three NPR correspondents to go beyond the headlines and find out why what's happened in Kyrgyzstan, Poland and Sudan is important and what it tells us about these three important countries.

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, too. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Bob Garfield(ph) on 25 years as Advertising Age's ad review columnist, but first we begin in Sudan, where polls open this week for the first time in a generation. It's part of a process that includes a U.S.-brokered peace agreement to resolve the long war between the northern and southern parts of the largest country in Africa and the prelude to a referendum next year that has profound connections to Africa's colonial past and to its future.

NPR East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins joins us from Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Gwen, always good to have you on the program.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Hello, Neal, nice to be here.

CONAN: And tell us what's at stake in these elections.

THOMPKINS: Well, that's a big question, actually, Neal. Now, the north and south Sudan, they have been fighting each other on and off for the last 50 years, I mean, since the 1950s, actually, when Sudan became an independent nation. And the peace agreement that you refer to in your introduction is pivotal in our conversation because this peace agreement mandated that it mandated a lot of things, but what it really was, was sort of if you if I may, it was like marriage counseling, you know what I mean, the most intensive marriage counseling that you can possibly imagine.

It gave both north and south Sudan a few years to do some things together to see if they could make a go of it together, and then at the end of that six-year period, which ends next year, it was going to give southern Sudan the option to actually leave the union and make it, or try to make it, as its own independent nation.

And so the elections that we are seeing this week, this is one activity that was mandated by this peace agreement. It was supposed to give the southern Sudanese or not just the southern Sudanese, the Sudanese, a chance to, as you say, put this election together to do something together before figuring out whether they should be apart.

It was supposed to be, I guess, the last good time, and it was also supposed to be, you know, an opportunity to see how international diplomacy could really work in a place where there has been just an intransigent conflict.

You know, the U.S. has been pivotal in the brokering of this peace agreement. The West has been pivotal, as well as African powers that neighbor Sudan, and so they all saw this as, you know, a wonderful opportunity to show that diplomacy could win out against fighting, could win out against the gun.

CONAN: And as you point out, this was a civil war that was apparently, well, unresolvable, irretrievable. It was just going on. There were so many differences between the north and the south. And it's curious, we're going to be talking about another plane crash later, but the situation in southern Sudan, the leader of that rebellion for so long, John Garang, died in a plane crash just after this agreement was signed.

THOMPKINS: He certainly did, actually, and I had the wonderful opportunity to interview him shortly before he returned to Sudan and ultimately died in that plane crash that you're talking about. I mean, this was a man who was fierce.

I mean, when I first met John Garang, he was the first person I'd ever met who I thought: This man could snap me like a twig. I mean, physically he was you know, he was very impressive, and intellectually, he was even more impressive.

And this was a man who was able to take all sorts of disparate groups in southern Sudan and around Sudan and say look, we can work together against the ruling party of Sudan, and we shouldn't be fighting one another. We should be fighting for what he called a new Sudan, in which there would be no marginalized groups in Darfur or in the south or in the east or in the northern part of the country, where everybody would actually have a free and fair chance to make it as Sudanese.

CONAN: And what does this election that's happening right now, and there have been some, well, voting for the first time in a generation, you can expect some glitches. There's also some accusations of maybe a fix or two. That's been known to be alleged in a lot of other elections in a lot of other countries, too, but nevertheless, how is this proceeding so far?

THOMPKINS: You know, it is for something that people have been waiting for for 24 years, this is surprisingly uninspiring, I have to say. I mean, voter turnout has been very sparse in the north. There have been all sorts of technical glitches that no one can really quite understand, but in total, the cumulative effect of all of these technical glitches has meant that a lot of people have been frozen out of the process.

You know, people are not finding their names on the voter lists. There are unauthorized people who are showing up in the polling stations and trying to coordinate what's going on. You know, people who are getting to vote are getting to vote using the most flimsy of documentation.

There's also been reports of child voters. I mean, 10 years ago, we were talking about child soldiers. Now we're talking about people the age, you know, 12, 15, 16, you know, walking into a polling station and saying they're 20 and being allowed to vote, you know?

And then also, you know, the registration centers where all these people went to register, and it was reported that 16 million people went to register. And you know, people were supposed to be able to go back to those same centers and vote, but a lot of those centers have disappeared.

And so people have been forced to sometimes walk, you know, tens of kilometers just to have the opportunity to vote. So it's really I mean, you can take all these things individually and say, you know, that's a shame, but when you take them cumulatively, all of these glitches, as you called them, I mean, you know, all of these glitches tend to, you know, to be to the advantage of the ruling party, the ruling party of northern Sudan and the ruling party of southern Sudan. They seem to sort of add up to keeping the status quo, keeping the same people in power who have been in power for a long time.

CONAN: And let's look ahead to that plebiscite next year, the referendum. This has profound implications and not just for Sudan. And Gwen, you know better than I that for many years now, political leaders in Africa said the only thing worse than the old colonial boundaries that defined our countries, many of which divide language groups and tribes and make no sense at all to anybody who is not in Paris or London, but the only thing worse than those old colonial boundaries is the idea of changing them.

THOMPKINS: That is so true. That is so true, Neal. You know, African powers are very resistant to the idea of secession movements, of any kinds of, you know, activities that might result in the breakup of a nation. Even though, as you say, you have all these disparate populations who, I mean, were thrown together into a nation geographically by, you know, by people who don't even know them.

And so, you know, this is another reason why the peace agreement was so historic because it did allow for this group of people in the south and the south is huge. I mean, this is the size of California and Nevada combined, okay this did allow the south to have this opportunity to vote for its own independence next year, this would be January of next year, and in a peaceful way, and you know, and both sides could kiss and say goodbye, and you know, and move on to their respective futures.

This would change the map of Africa if southern Sudan becomes its own, independent nation, but it would also send a bit of a, you know, a fearful current around capitals everywhere around the continent because it's going to open the door for other secessionary movements to try to gather steam and see what kinds of deals that they can that they might be able to strike in order to perhaps secede from whatever countries they are in.

CONAN: Yeah, once the borders...

THOMPKINS: There's a strong...

CONAN: Once the borders start to change, when does it stop? That's the difficult question.

THOMPKINS: Absolutely, absolutely.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from...

THOMPKINS: And, you know...

CONAN: Email, I'm sorry, Gwen, we're getting a little delay. So we're cutting we're interrupting each other. Here's an email we have from Bakri(ph), describes himself as a Sudanese American. The indictment of President al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, by the International Criminal Court, only helped increase the popularity of the governing party. I saw the shift in support within my own family. Whatever that indictment was supposed to serve, it did just the opposite, a clear lack of understanding of the psychology of the people in this part of the world. Al-Bashir will easily win this, mark my word, and then God help Sudan, what's left of it, he says.

THOMPKINS: Well, that's a very powerful email. And you know, I was just talking today with Sadiq al-Mahdi, who was, at one time, prime minister of Sudan and who most recently was one of the candidates who withdrew from the presidential race.

And his view was is that, you know, the West is very good at worrying about security issues and worrying about humanitarian issues but not very good at understanding the cultural issues of particular countries and the cultural sensitivities and the political sensitivities.

So there's a lot you know, there's a lot of varying opinion on whether this indictment by the International Criminal Court did any good or did, you know, did ill to efforts to fix the problems in Darfur or to create some political maturity in Sudan, but the truth of the matter is Omar al-Bashir, the president, has been counting on these elections to show that he could be legitimately elected to the presidency of Sudan.

He came to power in 1989 in a military coup. And you know, when you come in as a military coup, you know what I mean, I guess your secret dream is that everyone appreciates you at some point. And he has really been campaigning fiercely around the country.

I mean, the man has been stumping even in southern Sudan. And he's used a brilliant campaign strategy, which is: We are the people who brought you the comprehensive peace agreement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: And I tell you, that has had some traction, you know what I mean, around the country. But the legitimacy that he so desperately wanted, you know what I mean, to come from this election may not come, Neal, because there have been so many screw-ups. There have been so many technical glitches. There's so much suspicion against the ruling party here that people are, you know, I mean, they're disassociating from the elections. They're not showing up, and they're they don't believe that what's happening is credible.

CONAN: And Gwen, the critical vote may, in fact, be cast by the monitors from the Carter Center, who are testing the legitimacy of this election. We'll follow your reports as the election there has been extended a couple of days, and we'll await the results and look ahead to this referendum next year. Gwen Thompkins, thank you so much for your time today.

THOMPKINS: It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Gwen Thompkins, NPR East Africa correspondent, with us from the capital of Sudan, in Khartoum. When we come back from a short break, we're going to be talking with David Green, who covered the political coup d'etat in Kyrgyzstan, he's now in Siberia; and with Eric Westervelt, who's been covering the situation in Warsaw, following the tragic loss of that country's president and so much of its political leadership and military leadership. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

In a few minutes, we'll focus on the tragedy that befell Poland over the weekend: 96 top government and military officials dead after a plane crash in Eastern Russia. The young democracy mourns, but it endures. Eric Westervelt will join us.

But let's turn now to the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic where President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted last week in a bloody coup barely five years after Bakiev himself unseated his predecessor.

While Kyrgyzstan may be little-known to most Americans, it's home a big U.S. air base that's critical to support of the war in Afghanistan. The base has been the source of controversy in Kyrgyzstan and in Russia. NPR Moscow correspondent David Green covered that coup in Kyrgyzstan. He's now in Siberia in Russia, and he's taken the trouble to stay up to speak with us tonight. Thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID GREEN: No problem, Neal. Good to talk to you.

CONAN: And David, was this your first visit to Bishkek, the capital?

GREEN: This was my first visit to Bishkek, and it wasn't exactly in the state that you read about. It's supposed to be, you know, a very neat, energetic, Central Asian community with a lot of youth and energy, and when I landed there with a number of other reporters from Moscow on Thursday morning, this was a capital that was burning.

The streets were still chaotic. There was looting. There were cars overturned. There was a casino and hotel and other government buildings that were still smoldering from the night before. So it was a capital in real distress.

And this coup came about very suddenly. So I think a big part of this story was just the shock among a lot of the residents.

CONAN: And when you fly into Bishkek, as I understand it, the U.S. air base at Manas is co-located with the airport of the capital.

GREEN: It is, yeah. It's right there with the international airport. So when you hear about, you know, people talk about a sprawling U.S. military base, it's not, you know, it's not that sprawling. You know, it's there with the airport, but very important, and Robert Gates, the U.S. defense secretary today actually talked about that.

You know, he spoke about a base that the U.S. uses for refueling, they use for troop movements into and out of Afghanistan. Some of those services have been, have been suspended because of the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, and Secretary Gates said, you know, there are alternatives. It's not like we couldn't live without this base in Kyrgyzstan. But none of the alternatives are good and none of the alternatives are cheap, which gives you a sense of how this is an important and strategic place for the U.S. military.

CONAN: And the head of the new government said today that indeed the U.S. lease on that base will be extended. Perhaps it may be renegotiated upward, but nevertheless this is what some people have termed a lily pad, and by that they mean a U.S. base not like those in Germany or in Japan that have been there for generations, but someplace that's there, well, as long as we need it.

GREEN: Yeah, I think it's a really good point. I mean, if you're imagining U.S. bases overseas as being Germany or South Korea or Japan, you know, it's a totally different image. These are not, these are not bases that are really well established in the community with a lot of deep ties in the community and, you know, employees from a local community. These are places that, as you said, are used as long as they need to be.

But I have to say, one of the surprising things that I found when I was in Bishkek visiting one of the hospitals where a lot of the wounded were being treated from those bloody protests, and some of the dead were brought, I noticed one little-known mention of the millions of dollars that the United States military had given to some of the hospitals in Bishkek, a lot of the training that they had done for doctors.

So in this really ironic way, you know, there was this speculation that perhaps, you know, perhaps, rumors at least, that Russia was somehow behind this coup, that they wanted to get the U.S. military out and that's why we had this violence, and here the United States was funding the hospitals that were treating the wounded in this revolution.

So a lily pad, yes, but the United States has certainly invested here over the years that they've had this base here.

CONAN: And this is a former Soviet socialist republic, one of those SSRs that broke free and established independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Is this a country that is in continual or periodic turmoil?

GREEN: It's not clear. You know, it's it's troubled, and there are a lot of very tough authoritarian governments in this region of the world. And, you know, it's not clear. A lot of this revolution, coup, whatever you call it, was because of a very poor economy. So it was a perfect storm in many ways.

You know, a government that was corrupt in the eyes of many residents, a very tough economy. You know, one of the fascinating trends in this global recession, in a country like Kyrgyzstan a lot of their money came from their migrant workers going up and getting jobs doing migrant work in Russia. Those jobs dried up, and so a lot of those employees were coming back home with no money to spend. And when you have an economy that is relying on migrant labor, that's not the best storyline.

But one of the questions going forward, I think, Neal, is what the United States will do in terms of influencing this new government in Kyrgyzstan. The International Crisis Group's Paul Quinn-Judge had had a really good opinion piece over the last few days, talking about just the lack of intervention from the United States and from Russia.

You know, they had their interests - military, strategic - in Kyrgyzstan but paid no attention to this government, and both countries, Russia and the United States, were sort of blown away and surprised when this all came about.

And as Paul Quinn-Judge put it, dependence on a government like that is both miserable ethics and poor strategy, and so I think ethically and strategically, the United States is going to have to think about whether they want to rely on a government that's not entirely stable and one where, you know, the government could be in a cycle of just one revolt after another.

It happened five years ago. It's happened now. And while there's a lot of really powerful talk coming from these new leaders about, you know, a free election in six months and democratic institutions, you know, the people of Kyrgyzstan, they really want to see the real thing before they believe it.

CONAN: One final question before we let you go, David Green, and that is: You mentioned well, in that opinion piece he said this came as a surprise to the Russians, as well as to the United States, though there are some who suspect Russia was indeed behind this and with the idea that the United States presence, a big air base on its southern frontier, not a welcome thing.

GREEN: You know, I think you could say there's a whole lot of circumstantial evidence, if this were in court. You know, there have been talks there's been talk in Russia for a very long time of trying, as best they can, to get rid of this base.

They actually tried a year ago and almost succeeded, until the United States put up more rent money to stay. And also, when this new government came into place after President Bakiev was deposed, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the first to call the new government and sort of embrace it.

So it's certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence and a lot of motive for Russia to try and get rid of this government, but so far no clear proof that they were somehow involved, paying money or sending people down to Kyrgyzstan. I mean, that's certainly one thing that this new government is going to look at as they sort out what happened down there.

But a lot of speculation but so far no clear link to the Russians.

CONAN: David Green, thank you very much.

GREEN: My pleasure, Neal, always a pleasure.

CONAN: NPR Moscow correspondent David Green, with us today on the phone from Siberia in Russia.

And let's move now to another side of the old Soviet Empire, to Poland, where last weekend Poland's president, Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 others, including dozens of the nation's political and military leaders, died as their plane attempted to land in dense fog in Russia.

The tragedy cut all the more deeply because the dignitaries were on their way to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, when thousands of Polish military officers were executed by Soviet forces during the Second World War. NPR's Eric Westervelt covered the story from Warsaw. He's just returned to his base in Berlin and joins us there now, joins us from there now. Eric, nice to have you with us.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Hi, Neal, good to be here.

CONAN: And it's a day of mourning today in Poland, but, well, let's talk about the present and the future just for a moment. How has the government in Poland been able to handle the loss of so much of its leadership?

WESTERVELT: Well, the country is still in a bit of is still in shock, is still reeling, and Warsaw is really still a centerpiece of a nation in mourning. But I do think, to get to your question, despite all the grief and sorrow, Neal, it's you know, and then the shock, really, to lose so many senior officials all at once there's a sense of reassurance from a lot of Poles I spoke with that their young democracy has handled this tragedy pretty well.

People have come together. The acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski, has moved quickly to fill key positions in the president's Cabinet and in the military, even on an interim basis, to make other appointments, and he's expected to announce a date for presidential elections as soon as tomorrow. Those will be held before the end of June.

So the nation has at least, you know, for this week put aside some political divisions and tried to come together to mourn, and that's significant, Neal.

This is an election year in Poland. Lech Kaczynski, the deceased president, was a controversial figure who made lots of enemies. But again, they've united to mourn their losses, even as they start to ask some tough questions about the fleet of presidential aircraft, about safety and travel procedures for VIPs and why the pilot chose to land in heavy fog, Neal, despite warnings - the Russians say several warnings -not to do it and to divert to a nearby airport.

CONAN: And the irony, I guess, that a plane carrying journalists to cover the ceremony, well, that landed safely.

WESTERVELT: That's right. That plane landed safely, and the next one to come in apparently hit the tops of trees, and no survivors.

CONAN: The wound cuts all the more deeply because of the occasion that the president and all those other people were on their way to mark, the famous massacre - the infamous massacre, I should say - at Katyn.

WESTERVELT: That's right. I mean, Katyn may not be a household name for Americans, but for Poles, it's not ancient history. It's really a household word. It's looking at the death, the massacre of tens of thousands of Polish officers - also, really, intellectuals, professors, doctors, lawyers, the intelligentsia, who were killed by Stalin's secret police, the NKVD.

Stalin, historians believe, wanted to cripple Poland's elite and try to prevent any postwar rebound, and his solution was putting a bullet in the back of the head of many of the nation's elite. And, yes, it's just painfully ironic that on this Saturday of the crash, the military suffered its biggest losses. I mean, you know, the Polish Joint Chiefs of Staff head, the commanders of the air force, the navy, the land forces and the special forces, they were all killed, you know, leaving some Poles to say, you know, that this was a second Katyn.

CONAN: And these were officers and intellectuals who were thought to be - well, they were the cream of the old Polish Republic, the pre-Second World War Polish Republic. And, indeed, there was - after the Second World War, not an SSR, but a satellite, Warsaw Pact member dominated by the Soviet Union that only became truly free after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

WESTERVELT: That's right. And these officers, you know, were the top officials. They had a lot of the institutional experience. They had worked with European Union and American officials on missile defense and NATO and other key issues, and they're gone. And so that's - it's a big blow, especially to the Polish military.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's east European correspondent - not East European. He covers the whole continent - Eric Westervelt. He's with us from our bureau in Berlin. We've been talking about three stories -three tremendous changes in three countries with profound consequences to the future and, of course, profound echoes of the past. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Poland's relationship with Russia and, of course, its relationship with its neighbor on the other side of the country, to the west, Germany, these have been absolutely critical to its troubled history of the past 100 years. Its emergence as state after the First World War, its submergence into the Soviet empire after the end of the Second World War, a country where the Second World War started, in many ways, and a country that, well, I guess, by any stretch of the imagination, lost it.

WESTERVELT: True. And the irony here, Neal, is that some Poles are now saying - cautiously, anyway - that this, you know, Katyn, the painful symbol could become, perhaps, a source of improved relations, at least between Russia and Poland. I mean, Russia's President Vladimir Putin has done and said really all the right things since this devastating plane crash. He's declared a day of mourning in Russia, something unprecedented there. He attended an airport ceremony, you know, honoring the return of the president's remains. He said he'll personally oversee the investigation. He's gone out of his way to do all he could to express his grief and sorrow at this.

And that's really been noted and appreciated by Poles - not just the elites, but by ordinary folks I talked to in Warsaw who said, you know, actually, we're kind of impressed the way Russia has responded. So Katyn already a focal point, you know, for deeper ties, potentially, as evidenced by this year's memorial ceremony there. And now there's a sense that maybe this crash could be a catalyst for more improved ties, given the reaction so far from Russia.

CONAN: That response by the now-prime minister, former president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is a - it wasn't so long ago that to even suggest that it had been Soviet forces that killed those Polish officers at Katyn - to say that in Russia would have been treason.

WESTERVELT: That's right. Several Poles that I spoke with, you know, out there in Warsaw said, you know, we weren't able to even mention or talk about Katyn in public until 1990. It was pushed under the carpet throughout the communist era. Stalin and subsequent Soviet leaders, you know, denied that those mass graves were their work. They blamed the Nazis. It was only 1990 that then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted it was, in fact, Soviets who did these killings. So, really, it's only - it's been in the last 20 years that both sides have started to come to terms with the real history here.

CONAN: Let's see if we can see - get a caller in on the conversation. We'll go to Bernard, Bernard with us from Hoover, Alabama.

BERNARD (Caller): Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to make one point. I was reading some of the European sources that said that in the official report that the Polish state plane had made four passes over the Smolensk airfield and tried to land on the fifth pass. And so my question is: Is there any revelation as to whether someone on the plane was forcing - was trying to make sure they stayed on schedule where they wouldn't miss the ceremony the next day by landing in such a - in dangerous conditions?

CONAN: Eric Westervelt?

BERNARD: And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks, Bernard.

WESTERVELT: Yeah. It's a good question. There is speculation that the president, who is known to want his pilots to sort of get there and get there on time and be brave and land in any conditions, that he may have pressured the pilot. But, really, that's speculation at this point. You'll have to wait for the flight data recorders to come out.

I talked to a Polish air force colonel who said that they have four microphones in the cockpit, and that if there was any discussion about pressure, it would probably be picked up. And right now, there is no evidence that they were pressured.

There's even some discrepancies on whether the plane made that many passes at the airport before it tried to land. This air force colonel I spoke to said his sources tell him they made just one pass and came in for the fatal, you know, doomed landing. The Russians are saying they made several passes before they tried. I think the investigation is really at its early stage and we'll have to wait and see. But there's certainly a lot of questions out there that still need to be answered.

CONAN: And the body of the first lady of Poland returned to her country today. As I understand it, the funeral's going to be held in Krakow.

WESTERVELT: Yeah, it looks like a state funeral in Krakow could be controversial, that they moved it from Warsaw to Krakow. But, you know, they're really faced with this complex task of trying to have a funeral for nearly 90 people, many of whom were top officials in the government. Do you have one big funeral? Do you have weeks of funerals? I just spoke with one Polish official who said we're trying our best to balance this, but it's a tough job just logistically how to mourn and really honor these people.

CONAN: Eric Westervelt, thanks very much for your time today.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: Eric Westervelt, NPR European correspondent, with us today from our bureau in Berlin.

When we come back, we're going to be talking with Bob Garfield as he bids adieu to Ad Age after 25 years as a sometimes-caustic advertising critic. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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