Reporters' Roundtable: Democratic Forum

On today's Reporters' Roundtable, journalists weigh in with their thoughts on last night's Democratic presidential forum sponsored by The Human Rights Campaign, a gay activist group. Also on the table is NASA's long-in-the-making effort to send a teacher into space.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

CHERYL CORLEY, host:

And now to our weekly Reporter's Roundtable.

Last night, Democratic presidential hopefuls again took the stage this time in Hollywood for what many gay Americans are calling a historic event. The forum was sponsored by gay activist group, The Human Rights Campaign. Among the many issues on the agenda were questions about same-sex marriage and the military's don't ask, don't tell policy.

And for the rest of the story and much more, we've got a few folks joining us. Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor at the L.A. Times op-ed section and joins us here in the studio. Hello.

Ms. ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN (Contributing Editor, Los Angeles Times): Hello. Good to be here.

CORLEY: Good. And Sean Gonsalvez is assistant news editor for the Cape Cod Times. He is also a syndicated columnist. Hello, Sean.

Mr. SEAN GONSALVEZ (Assistant News Editor, Cape Cod Times): Hello. On the other side of the country, I'm here.

CORLEY: Okay. And Corey Dade, a Southern correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Hi, Corey.

Ms. COREY DADE (Correspondent, Wall Street Journal): Hi, Cheryl.

CORLEY: Well, we are going to kick things off with a montage from last night's forum. So, take a listen.

(Soundbite from Democratic presidential candidates and LGBT forum)

Mr. MIKE GRAVEL (Former Democratic Senator, Alaska): I'll tell you, I'll make you a promise. Five years from now, the marriage issue will be a non-issue in the next presidential campaign.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): And if the state should not be intervening against people, the state should be there on behalf of people.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): In my judgment, what is achievable is civil unions with full marriage rights, with the domestic partnership. I believe that's achievable.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): The kids who go to public schools need to understand why same-sex couples are the parents of some of the children. They need to understand that these are American families.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I'm a strong supporter, not of a weak version of civil unions, but of a strong version in which the rights that are conferred at the federal level to persons of, you know, who are part of a same-sex union are compatible. Now…

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): We have moved a long way on this and other issues, but I think it's important to recall how much of an advance don't ask, don't tell was at the time.

CORLEY: All right. So that was former Senator Mike Gravel, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Governor Bill Richardson, and Senators John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, again, last night in Hollywood, six of the eight Democrats running for president showing up last night. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, of course, not part of the event.

Folks, this was more of a forum than a debate, with each candidate appearing separately.

Erin, why don't I begin with you? Do you think that worked?

Ms. KAPLAN: No, I think it's quite Hollywood, appropriately (unintelligible). And it's very symbolic. I mean, it was an invited group of, like, 200 people, and Melissa Etheridge and some other people where the…

CORLEY: The questioners?

Ms. KAPLAN: Yeah.

CORLEY: Yeah.

Ms. KAPLAN: And - but really, I don't think any - no one moved from the position - no one moved except I think for Dennis Kucinich who is - you know, I mean, one of the candidate actually supports gay marriage. That is really the crux of this. I mean, we are tolerant of gays. We are - we support their rights to this and that, but the real essential issue here is gay marriage. In other words, you know, that is a real quality issue here.

And the candidates did not go that far. And I don't know what that will mean to the gay constituency. I think this is a sort of a backlash against the anti-gay sentiment that's really been ramping the last six or seven years. So - but you know, like I said, rich in symbolic value, but in terms of moving the discussion ahead, no, I don't think there is much there.

CORLEY: Corey, do you agree, not much movement, not much that these candidates did, talking about gay marriage, HIV virus, anything at all?

Mr. DADE: Cheryl, I don't think so. And I think the Democrats, regardless of their efforts to moderate their views to draw more swing voters and more moderate voters, the party itself is still the party of the big 10. And so they cannot run, so to speak, from the responsibility that they have to address the issues of gay rights, same-sex marriage, et cetera. And to this point, no candidate has been so aggressively, with the exception of Kucinich, obviously, has been too aggressively willing to come back to address the issues involving this - these particular communities. And, you know, it's going to be a matter of time before they have to. It's a necessity.

CORLEY: Well, the debate was put together by the Human Rights Campaign. And it's really been rare to see presidential candidates woo this audience in the past. So this campaign is quite different in that respect. So Sean, what do the Democrats really stand to gain?

Mr. GONSALVEZ: What do they stand to gain? Well, you know, I don't know that they have much to gain. I think for - I think they are - previous guests that had it right. No matter who the Democratic candidate is, I think in terms of trying to influence swing voters by trying to moderate their views, I don't think it really helped in any way.

What actually was set out to me the most was, there were no surprises, of course. I mean, nobody said anything new. But it was a little interesting when, you know, Governor Bill Richardson, you know, when he was asked, do you think homosexuality is a choice? He said, yes, a choice, which I think, you know, cuts also to the crux of the matter that, you know, that pits, you know, these conservative Christians who definitely think it's a choice.

CORLEY: Well, then he, kind of, backtracked a little bit, didn't he?

Mr. GONSALVEZ: Well, he did. And I think, you know, he realized it. It was a little uncomfortable I think for him, and probably also for Edwards.

CORLEY: Yeah. Well, you all talk about swing voters. And I was wondering, Erin, if you thought by having this appearance, if Democrats were actually putting themselves at risk with swing voters?

Ms. KAPLAN: Oh, gosh. I'm talking about this. Yes.

CORLEY: Well, we will in a few minutes.

Ms. KAPLAN: There are - no, I don't mean you. I'm sorry.

Yes, of course, it's a risk. But in a way, it reminded me very much of how they approach African-American voters. They come into a church, into a special setting and say, we support you, we do. But we won't go as so far as to support prison reform or something like that. You know, it's like - yeah, it's a big temple. It's only it's not that big. And the gay vote - I guess it's small enough to be a swing vote, but it's also potentially powerful because a lot of high-profile people are gay. So - but essentially, like, you know - I sound like a broken record - but I don't think it's going to move the Democratic Party to a different policy.

And keep in mind, there are lots of socially conservative people in the Democratic Party, including black voters…

CORLEY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KAPLAN: … who have sort of taken the Bush bait and support - it sort of gotten on the anti-gay, you know, wagon. And I think the Democrats are very cognizant of that.

CORLEY: So how important, I guess, appearing before this group and doing this forum, and of course, trying to get an endorsement perhaps of sorts, do any of you think that an endorsement from the GOPT advocacy groups would be helpful to any of these candidates?

Mr. GONSALVES: Well, certainly financially. You know, I think it's pretty well known - I don't have any numbers - but a lot of, you know, gay Americans do pretty well financially, and then you got folks like Tim Gill and others who have contributed quite a bit of money on that side. So and it seems like there's seems to be at least around Tim Gills who's a computer mogul out, excuse me, Denver, Colorado. There seems to be more of an effort focused, sort of, outside of the big political picture on state initiatives and so forth. So - but I think it could help them on the financial front.

CORLEY: All right. Well, if you are just joining us, we were doing a roundup, sort of, of the week's news. And joining us are Erin Aubry Kaplan, Sean Gonsalves and Corey Dade.

Let's take a look now at another story. Barbara Morgan has waited 21 years, but she finally made to outer space yesterday. Originally, she was the backup for Christa McAuliffe in that, of course, tragic 1986 Challenger mission. Morgan is a former elementary school teacher from Idaho. She is now an astronaut up in space. She'll be in space for two weeks on the Endeavor spacecraft.

What do you recall, first of all, of the Challenger explosion and do you think that the teacher and space program is a good idea. Erin, why don't I start with you?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, I'm too young to remember 1980…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KAPLAN: Oh, yes.

CORLEY: Right.

Ms. KAPLAN: Yeah, always a child, no. Yeah, of course, I do remember the - that. And I remember it took me - and I'm sure it took the rest of the country by surprise. You know, you forget how dangerous these missions are. It's not like driving a car or taking a ship. I mean - and so, what I remember, of course, were Ronald Reagan's words, which is something like, they touched the face of God, which I thought was an interesting way of saying that thing blew up in the whole, you know…

CORLEY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KAPLAN: …and that things went wrong.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KAPLAN: And, of course, it's very tragic. It's interesting - I don't know that I would persist 21 years in, you know, and stand, again, in line for an obviously dangerous mission like this. But I guess, there's an individual honor or, you know, to that. But I have to say the space program itself is another issue and I think - talk about symbolism, I think that's mainly what it is.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Shawn, what do you think national value is of having a teacher in space?

Mr. GONSALVES: Well, I mean, I think it's basically like a giant pep talk for kids or something like that. I mean, it's inspirational - I mean, I was a sophomore in high school and they broke in to the study hall and announced at that time, you know, it was big and shocking. But, you know - and as a youngster, you know, it sparks the imagination. You see all these science fiction movies, "Star Wars" and all of these things. So I think - but it has only really that kind of value because if you - the irony in this whole thing, of course, is that as a teacher - I mean, if you listen to the space science Community, they're very upset with the way the whole space program is going…

CORLEY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GONSALVES: …in terms of all the (unintelligible) men. I mean, much better information for a lot less dollars is coming back from Unmanned Space Missions. And so it's kind of interesting that a teacher who can give us inspirational person for the young people, at the same time, sort of his involvement in the program that the space community is saying isn't really that valuable.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Well, NASA, of course, is hoping that this flight will draw attention away from some recent embarrassing news, including a medical report that some astronauts had previously been intoxicated on launch date. And Corey, I was wondering if you - that would actually - this flight will actually do that if it's a successful trip.

Mr. DADE: In a word, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DADE: I think that NASA is an institution apart from the imperative. I believe and many Americans believe, we have to explore our world and our universe and the immeasurable benefits that brings to, not only educating youth, but also to, you know, improving our lives here through technology and just the advancement that comes with it. NASA, as an institution, has been troubled for years from everything, from panels falling off the space shuttles to - now, this. And I think at this point, any - we have not seen in the news very often issues involving astronauts and their personal lives.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DADE: And I think it's pretty much an outgrowth of any type of institution we have were the veil of a respected group, whether you're talking about pilots or whether you're talking about politicians many years ago, the veil of those institutions and the people in them, you know, is pierced. And so I don't think it goes beyond that. I think it's something that is endemic in any institution where you have, you know, people who perform very complicated functions. It involved - that involve a higher amount of risk. It's a matter of, you know, clamping down and enforcing the practices you have.

CORLEY: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I want to turn real quickly - we only have time for a quick comment on one other subject this morning. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez held a press conference saying the Bush administration is going to move forward with immigration reform without Congress' help. And so the question remains, what's on the president's to-do list as far as this is concern?

Erin, do you want to start this of here?

Ms. KAPLAN: Well, I guess, Bush is trying to let us know that he's going his own way, as he tends to do, on a lot of things with immigration, you know. He's certainly, thumbed his nose at Congress before. But I think what he's emphasizing, for what I understand in this press conference, is we will target employers who employ on documented workers…

CORLEY: Yes.

Ms. KAPLAN: …which, of course, has been tossed around, you know, a lot.

CORLEY: I was just, you know…

Ms. KAPLAN: Yeah.

CORLEY: I was going to ask everybody, does that seem like an unpopular starting point for Republican administration to…

Mr. DADE: Yes.

Ms. KAPLAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DADE: Yeah, absolutely. It is - there is another aspect to that kind of interesting - is that…

CORLEY: Really quickly please. I have…

Mr. DADE: …I think in most people's mind, people think that illegal immigrants don't often pay in the Social Security and I think a lot of them do. I'm not - and so, there's this sort of unintended consequence of what if you end up kicking all these people and you don't have this money going into Social Security, I mean, just on the practical side of things.

CORLEY: Well, do you guys expect Congress to do anything before its the next session or during its next session?

Mr. GONSALVES: Well, I think now the administration has forced Congress' hand to come, you know, come back to this issue very quickly. I think we're coming into the election season and so it'll be incumbent upon them to do so. Otherwise, the administration, and by extension perhaps the Republicans, can claim that they were aggressive and, at the very least, enforcing the immigration enforcement laws that already exist.

CORLEY: Let me stop you there and say thank you to you all.

Mr. GONSALVES: Thank you.

Ms. KAPLAN: Sure.

Mr. DADE: All right. Thank you.

CORLEY: Erin Aubry Kaplan is a editor at the L.A. Times op-ed section. Sean Gonsalves is assistant news editor for the Cape Cod Times, and Corey Dade is a Southern correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.