'Shop Talk': What Did George Bush Say About Kanye West?

Host Michel Martin leads this week's Barbershop roundtable conversation about the top issues of the week, including the "shellacking" Democrats suffered in the midterm elections and what former President George W. Bush called the worst moment in his presidency: being accused by rapper Kanye West of not caring about black people. Martin is joined by blogger Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and Republican strategist Marcus Skelton.

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 shapeup this week are writer Jimi Izrael, columnist Ruben Navarrette, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar and Republican strategist Marcus Skelton. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Thanks, Michel.

Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop, how are we doing?

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Civil Rights Attorney): Hey, hey, hey.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist): Doing good, man.

Mr. MARCUS SKELTON (Republican Strategist): Doing great. Doing really great.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you're doing better than

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: I know you are, Marcus. Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: He's really cute trying to, like, bring it in. Trying not to grin all -like letting the grin spread all over his face. He's being very nice to us here.

Mr. IZRAEL: You can definitely hear it in his voice because he knows that President Obama and the Democrats got served in Tuesday's elections. Now, they lost the House of Representatives and barely, barely hung onto the Senate, Michel. Give us a breakdown.

MARTIN: Well, Arsalan wishes us to remember that it is not unusual for the party of the president to lose congressional seats in midterm elections. That happened to presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. But that being said, the loss of what's currently 60 seats in the House, with 10 races still undecided, makes

Mr. IZRAEL: Shellacking.

MARTIN: Yeah, shellac is the right word. Could be as many as 70. And President Obama talked about working with a new Congress on this press conference on Wednesday. I'll just give you a short clip. Do you want to hear it? Just for those of you who missed it. Here it is.

President BARACK OBAMA: I think I've got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much as progress as we need to make. Now, moving forward, I think the question's going to be, can Democrats and Republicans sit down together and come up with a set of ideas that address those core concerns? I'm confident that we can.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mm. Wow.

MARTIN: Yeah, so anyway, there you go, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right, well, Marcus, you know, I guess the question is now, the Democrats are out in the House and running scared in the Senate, do communities of color really, really have something to fear from the new political reality? I mean, what's going to change for African-Americans?

Mr. SKELTON: I think, well, I think that nothing's going to change for African-Americans. I think that's a great thing that the Democrats tried to do is try to say that we are the party that protects you from the man. But you realize over the past two years, the man has been a black dude from Chicago.

So, look, what's going to happen is we're going to have to look at where this money is going in a lot of these programs. That's one of the big things that people are saying - you spend all this money and we don't see it. And this is exactly what they're going to have to show over the next two years. Both sides, President Obama and the Republicans in Congress are going to have to show where they cut the money and where it's all going.

MARTIN: But, you know, but here's the thing, Marcus, and one of the things that I'm interested in is that a lot of Republicans ran explicitly saying that they want to undo health care, undo health care reform. Well, who are the most underserved people in regard to health care? Blacks and Latinos. So why wouldn't they just rationally based on, you know, just based on policy - not how you feel about this person or that person. Say that the policies as stated by the Republican candidates are not in their best interest.

Mr. SKELTON: Well, I think one of the things and one of the misnomers of health care that everybody got free health care, what it is is not everybody has to get it. We may give you financial assistance. One of the things is that some people may not have health care because they can't afford it currently. And this is why a lot of people on the more liberal side of the aisle were disappointed with the health care bill as well because it didn't go as far as they wanted it to have quality affordable health care.

MARTIN: That's my point. Go ahead, Ruben, I know you want to talk about this, but go ahead.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Well, I'll tell you what, I'm not a member, as you know, of the blue team or the red team, but I am in a good mood this morning.

MARTIN: Brown team.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think - yeah. What can brown do for you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think this is a great event. And I felt the same exact way -just cards on the table. In 2006 when Democrats took both houses of Congress, Republicans needed to be fired back then in 2006. You had overspending, you had the Mark Foley scandal, you had lots of different reasons. Hubris had come into the Republican Party. And now you needed Democrats to likewise get a spanking. I'm all about taking a static political stuff and inserting some element of chaos into it.

Now, the blue team doesn't like hearing that, the red team doesn't like hearing that because particularly in Washington, D.C., everybody's a cheerleader for one side or another. But I'm just calling balls and strikes and I'm saying that it's a good thing that this happened because the president had been moving too far, spending too much and not listening enough either to the American people or to Republicans.

The clip you played about he wants to work with Republicans, where was that in formulating the health care plan where he basically said, we don't need a single Republican vote. Not even Collins or Snowe from Maine, okay? Moderates like that. We're going to push this through on Democrats' votes alone. So now all of a sudden that he's gotten this shellacking, now he feels like he wants to compromise. Where was this spirit of compromise when we could've used it?

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh-oh, A-Train, speak up for your home boy, man.

MARTIN: A-Train.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: Come on. He couldn't even keep his Illinois seat, man.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, you know...

Mr. IZRAEL: Seriously?

MARTIN: Well, it wasn't his seat anymore, but...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, Jimi...

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, there's that.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, Jimi, Gil Scott Heron once said that the revolution will not be televised, though what we did see on Tuesday, as my Facebook friends from Kentucky pointed out, was definitely a Rand slide. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: You know, what's interesting to me is, you know, obviously the Democrats, you know, thus far are going to retain the majority in the Senate. I think it's going to be 53-47, from the 59-41 that they previously held. But, you know, for those of us on the left, you know, we didn't really see them using that majority anyway. And so, you know, it's funny when President Obama talks about cooperation, you know, you know, the conservatives and the Republicans, you know, point out, you know, all these little things. But when Republicans are in power, they never talked about cooperation. They march in lockstep with their party. They're a well-oiled machine when Bush and the Republicans are in power...

MARTIN: Yeah, Speaker Hastert - Speaker Denny Hastert also...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely. It...

MARTIN: ...Arsalan's home boy.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: It has to be said, talked about the majority of the majority. He said that...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: What's different about that? I mean, I remember Obama differently. I remember Obama saying to John McCain during this health care -remember he got all the Republicans together in a room and he like beat on them and they tried to go after him but he beat on them and said, you know, you don't understand, I won the election, we had an election, the election is over?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, but...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: (Unintelligible)

MARTIN: Yeah. But could we focus on - here - I understand what you're saying...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Arsalan wants to paint it out like all of a sudden Republicans never want to compromise and Democrats are all about compromise. That's not how I remember the last two years.

MARTIN: But here's the question - heres the question, Ruben - was this election about the process by which things got done or was it about policy? Because one of the things I think is very strange about this press conference is that reporters are all beating up on Obama to say he was wrong on policy. Well, isn't that what he got elected to do? You know what I mean? It makes no sense to me. If his base, which is blacks and Latinos, didn't come out - and not just blacks and Latinos, and white progressions and white women, for example...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...did not come out for him...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: There's a difference...

MARTIN: Isn't that because they didnt feel that policies were really as exciting as they wanted it to be, how then can it be that his problem was he didn't compromise with Republicans?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, the funny thing is that...

MARTIN: That's my question.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: The funny thing is that, you know, Republicans only, you know, tend to have a memory span, you know, going back to two years. They don't remember, you know, the eight years before then when we had George W. Bush, who never brought Democrats to the room, passed USA Patriot Act, domestic wiretapping, all these things, without any sort of, you know, quote-unquote "cooperation." Again, it's...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's not true.

MARTIN: That's not true.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's not true.

MARTIN: Not on domestic policy, that's not true. No Child Left Behind.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No. Not on "No Child Left Behind." No, and but also on...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No Child Left Behind what?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: No.

MARTIN: Okay. But you can...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Also on terrorism policy. I mean if you want to believe, Arsalan, if you want to believe and your folks at the ACLU you want to believe that Democrats did not sell you down the river on terrorism policy, you haven't been paying attention. I could cite five dozen Democrats who voted for the Patriot Act, okay?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: It was a 98 - it was a 98 to 1 vote. Russell Feingold, who was the, sadly, the only liberal lion in the Senate left who lost in Wisconsin...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Correct. Correct. Let's tell it right. Let's tell it like it really happened. I mean this is not a question of...

MARTIN: Well, let me...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Democrats have not always been in your camp.

MARTIN: But let's just before we go, Ruben, so what's your argument? Is it policy or process that cost the president - the Democrats the seats?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think it was more process. I think it was more a sense that Obama was pushing things through, not listening and not really caring what the opposition said and not really caring what people were saying. When he passed through health care reform, despite the fact that, you know, two-thirds of Americans in some polls had problems with the mechanics of it, I think that was the seeds of destruction.

MARTIN: Okay. Jimi, what do you think, before we move on?

Mr. IZRAEL: I agree with Ruben. I think it was policy. I think people dont, they don't want to be dictated to; they want to see some collegiality. And you know what? I think, you can say what you want, you know, because here in Ohio, it was swept with the red, but it was hardly a mandate and voter turnout was down statewide. I think people just want Obama to listen. He's going to listen now, Jack.

MARTIN: To who is the question? That's my question, because as far as the left is concerned he wasn't listening to them. (Unintelligible)

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's right.

MARTIN: I'm just saying. If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from - youre listening to - we're listening to you, to - youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Jimi Izrael, Ruben Navarrette, Arsalan Iftikhar and Marcus Skelton.

Back to you, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Now, Barack Obama, he's not the only president with a story to run and tell. Now, George W. Bush's memoir called "Decision Points" is out next week. And in the book he says the rapper Kanye West was responsible for one of the all time low moments of his presidency, Michel. Wow.

MARTIN: Does anybody remember this? Do you remember this?

Mr. SKELTON: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Do you remember this? Okay. So you remember after the...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Of course.

MARTIN: ...2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West was a featured talent on this telethon to raise money for Katrina survivors, and he was appearing Mike Myers, the actor, and Kanye went totally off the reservation and here's a portion of it. Now, what you can't see is like Mike Myers face...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Exactly. That was...

MARTIN: ...looking like he had been run over by a Mack truck, like what has just happened here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But I'll just play - I'll just play then you'll hear both - you'll hear Kanye first then Mike Myers and Kanye again. Here it is.

(Soundbite of telethon)

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper): Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of the people that could help are at war right now fighting another way, and theyve given them permission to go down and shoot us.

Mr. MIKE MYERS (Actor): And subtle but in even many ways more profoundly devastating is the lasting damage to the survivors' will to rebuild and remain in the area. The destruction of the spirit of the people of Southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the most tragic loss of all.

Mr. WEST: George Bush doesn't care about black people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, so...

Mr. SKELTON: Wow.

Mr. IZRAEL: Woo.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I got to say, that was a little better than what came later, which was Beyonce had the best video of all time.

MARTIN: That was crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But then, of course, but now today, as the world turns, Kanye says he empathizes with President Bush. This is what he told the Houston radio host on Wednesday.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Mr. WEST: I definitely can understand the way he feels to be accused of being a racist in any way, because the same thing happened to me, you know, where I got accused of being a racist. And with both situations, it was basically a lack of compassion that America saw.

Mr. IZRAEL: Mmm. Yeah. And that's Kan...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Mmm. As I was saying...

Mr. IZRAEL: That's Kanye talking about his Video Music Awards diss of Taylor Swift.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: His Taylor Swift moment. Right. Right.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah-yeah. Thanks for that, Michel. Now, I don't know, Marcus -listen, so Kanye West's comments, that was the worst thing that happened during President Bush's administration, really? That was his low point?

Mr. SKELTON: I think it could be (unintelligible) they ask him his(ph) personal question, if you look at some of the things that President Bush did do for the African-American community, it was all counteracted by one long-held belief that a lot of African-Americans have is that Republicans are a racist party. And, of course, they use that throughout the campaign and it helped win in 2008, if you think about it. But what it is is whenever...

Mr. IZRAEL: Hmm.

MARTIN: But why...

Mr. IZRAEL: Kanye West did that all by himself, right?

Mr. SKELTON: Yeah. It...

MARTIN: But why wasnt all those people dying in Hurricane Katrina his worst moment? I guess that's what I'm puzzled by. Why was that...

Mr. SKELTON: It was a - and Kanye West said it - it was an emotional thing. President Bush didnt get there at the time that he thought he should have been there, but that doesn't mean that he was a racist person. And when you throw the term racism around, Kanye West got a dose of it, to see when you just call someone racist, what happens to you...

MARTIN: He didn't call him a racist though. Saying you don't care about somebody, is that the same as calling them are racist? I don't remember hearing him say the R word. I mean...

Mr. SKELTON: Well, it goes down that slope very quickly. And that's where it went.

MARTIN: That noted philosopher and political analyst, Kanye West.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SKELTON: I tell you what. More people listen to Kanye West than George Bush as far as political attitude.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And I dont know why that is. I just can't tell you why that is. I know...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think that the reason that President Bush felt wounded by those comments was because, you know, there really are two different George Bushes. The Bush in Texas, coming out of Texas in his 1998 reelection campaign, he got 25 percent of the black vote and he got almost 50 percent of the Hispanic vote. And when he went national he had this whole idea of like a compassionate conservative. Now, he gets to Washington and having to play that out nationally, it all comes unraveled and that is not the Bush that most people got to know. But the people who knew him back in Texas and covered him back then I think will attest to the fact that he has always prided himself on being sort of a kinder, gentler version of Republican to minority folks.

And I think that this really wounded him and, you know, he can get over it, but this was not a small thing. I remember when he ran in 2000 he said that Congress - Republicans in Congress - shouldn't balance the budget on the backs of poor folks and ended up in a fight with Tom Delay over that - a member of his own party. So this compassionate conservative thing was real. Im not all sure what happened when he got to Washington and he went national, but he really, I think, does pride himself on I am not your daddy's Republican.

MARTIN: Now, Arsalan...

Mr. IZRAEL: You know what?

MARTIN: Arsalan's playing his violin right here.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, you know...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Hold on.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead, A-Train.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I got to give President Bush the Come On Man Award here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IFTIKHAR: I mean seriously? Seriously, Kanye West was the low point of your presidency? How about the war in Iraq that was based on completely false premises?

MARTIN: But he thinks he was right.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, no. But again, he himself concedes that the intelligence that he got was false. I mean this led to 4,000 of our own boys and girls being killed, hundreds of thousands Iraqi civilians. I mean, you know, but youre going to say that the worst point in your life - in your presidency was when a rapper called you out on national television?

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, wait a minute, A-Train.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Come on, man.

Mr. IZRAEL: A-Train, lest we forget, wasn't Bush the guy who launched a billion-dollar plan to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa? This doesn't sound like a guy that dislikes black people to me.

MARTIN: But I think that what Arsalan is saying talking about is getting dissed by a rapper, that's a bigger deal than all these other things that happened...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...even if you thought you were right to do them. I mean that's the part that I'm tripping about.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Now that you have hindsight, with the luxury - with the luxury of hindsight, you're going to take, you know, a pop culture, you know, sub-moment and say that that's a greater in gravity than, you know, all these, you know, global events?

Mr. IZRAEL: But the point I'm trying to make is, is that, you know, that point - this - at that moment - his low point at that moment was kind of amplified. But this thing that he did - let's take the thing he did in Africa with the biggest dollars of AIDS now, that a lot of people don't know about. So - but everybody knows about Kanye. And I felt him with that comment. You know, I mean you don't want people to know about your lowest point.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You know what? I'm going to say - listen...

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead. Go ahead.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: The thing that's interesting about this, when Bush - I just remember this, when Bush sort of went national, he appeared one time before the NAACP National Convention, one time, the first time he was president, the first opportunity.

MARTIN: Was six years in.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. One time and he didn't do it after that and he held the NAACP responsible for an ad that appeared that basically, you know, tried to use the James Byrd case in Texas, with the African-American who was a victim of a hate crime, killed by racist white folks, and had used that and Bush's subsequent veto of a hate crimes bill in Texas in a way that Bush found very offensive. But I've got to believe that that whole fractured relationship between African-Americans and Bush, that was a complicated thing. That was not something that he wanted to happen. It went bad but I don't think he pushed it bad. I don't think like a lot of Republicans - there's a lot of white Republicans out there who intentionally antagonize black people because it helps them make points with white people, and there is a long list of folks like that, Jesse Helms top of that list.

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's not George Bush.

MARTIN: That's true. Marcus, have you ever met him?

Mr. SKELTON: Who, George Bush?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. SKELTON: Yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. What...

Mr. SKELTON: Well, you know, I've been in rooms full of Republicans and I'm not dead yet, so you know, I always say the Republican Party isn't a racist party.

(Soundbite of crosstalk)

MARTIN: Well, I don't think that's a standard. That's not the standard, coming out alive. I'm sorry. I didn't think that they had to point blow darts to throw at you. That's not the standard.

Mr. SKELTON: There's always a way to score political points, to kind of...

MARTIN: I just want to know if he was nice to you.

Mr. SKELTON: Yeah, he was nice to me. I went to the White House...

MARTIN: Did you feel a connection? You know, there are some people who just, you feel like you just can't relate to them. I'm just curious.

Mr. SKELTON: I mean in the brief two seconds of handshaking and hug, it, you know, he seemed like a nice guy, looked me in the eye and said hello, so...

MARTIN: Was that, is in your view that Kanye thing was the low point of his presidency, from your standpoint?

Mr. SKELTON: Well, it's on him. He has to sleep with that at night, you know...

MARTIN: All right.

Mr. SKELTON: ...certain things that get you upset personally. You know, in his life Kanye West may be a big deal.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we'll have to leave it there. We'll have to leave it there. If he feels that way, that's cool. Marcus Skelton is a Republican strategist, and he's also grants program advisor for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He was here in our D.C. along with Arsalan Iftikhar, the founder of muslimguy.com. He's also a legal fellow for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. And with us from San Diego, Ruben Navarrette, a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group and CNN.com. And from Cleveland, Jimi Izrael, author of "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN.

Thank you all so much.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Mr. SKELTON: Later.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more on Monday.

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