'Shop' Discusses Bhutto Slaying, Smith's Bad Press

Warning: Language May Be Offensive to Some

Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Nick Charles and Ruben Navarrette discuss the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and how recent comments by actor Will Smith have landed him in hot water with the Anti-Defamation League. They also address speculation about Sen. Barrack Obama's Muslim ties.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

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

Just ahead, comments from you, our listeners. It's our Backtalk segment.

But first, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about whatever's in the news and whatever's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week, our freelance writers Jimi Izrael, editor and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, media executive Nick Charles, and Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist.

There's a lot to talk about today, but before I throw it to you, Jimi, I want to ask Arsalan about the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Now, Arsalan, you're also a frequent commentator on affairs in the Muslim world. You've been talking to folks in Pakistan, which is where your family is originally from, I think. So can you tell us what you're hearing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: What we're hearing right now from the ground is that people are starting to take to the streets in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, that offices and shops are being looted. And so I think that this is the real gut-check time to see if Pakistan can make that transition to the parliamentary elections or whether or not General Musharraf is going to impose another state of emergency or martial law. It really - Pakistan is really at a crossroads right now.

MARTIN: Why are people taking to the streets?

IFTIKHAR: They're taking to the streets in anguish, in anger, in just retribution. Pakistan's history had seen five military dictators in nearly - only 60 years of existence. There have been political assassinations before...

MARTIN: Including Bhutto's own father.

IFTIKHAR: Including Bhutto's own father was hanged almost 30 years ago. And unfortunately, it is just - it's part in parcel of Pakistani politics. And it really is up to the grassroots, the lawyers, the judges, the intelligentsia who recently were taken to the streets in - to support democratic reform. Really, that the onus is on them now to ensure that law and order remains.

MARTIN: Ruben, I wanted to ask you what effect you think this is going to have on the presidential campaign here. I wonder if you think it refocuses the conversation back to issues like terrorism and national security because it seems like recently, and, of course, the Iowa caucuses are next week, the first voting in the presidential election seem like domestic issues are getting more attention because of, you know, the subprime mortgage crisis and all these other issues.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: Do you thin this pushes national security back to the forefront?

NAVARRETTE: I think it does. I think it's going to happen that way because the timing is so close. I mean, the - you know, and Iowa is like figuratively tomorrow in the caucus. And I think that there's a tendency when you think the world is safe again to have debates about the coming economic crisis. I mean, we're debating the prospect that might - I might lose a job, as opposed to having lost a job. And this is an analysis and that I think it helps Rudy Giuliani, obviously, who on the Republican side of the isle, has the strongest credentials in dealing with national security issues. And helps someone like John McCain, who impresses people of being ready to be president of tomorrow.

On the Democratic side, I want to put in a word for Barack Obama. It makes Barack Obama looks very, very good in hindsight. You remember about six months ago where he took grief from all the other candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, who called him naive for not understanding how important Pervez Musharraf was to us as an ally. Well, boy, has Obama turned out to be a profit in all of these. You know, Musharraf is not our friend.

Musharraf, interestingly enough, is blaming the death of Bhutto on terrorists. Well he probably is the only person the globe who's doing that. Everybody else is blaming Musharraf, because he set the tones for this by surrounding her house, by quarantining her at one point, by deeming her as sort of an enemy of the state. And so I think this falls back hard on him. It falls back hard on his number one benefactor who is, guess who, the United States - given him $10 billion since 9/11.

So I think it's good for Giuliani and McCain and probably good for Obama, not so good for the conventional politicians who want to sell us this bill of goods, that Musharraf is our best friend out there. He doesn't look like anybody's friend today.

MARTIN: Nick, what do you think?

NICK CHARLES: So some people say yesterday -said yesterday was, oh, this has nothing to do with General Musharraf and that, you know, it was a terrorists. So you have the White House, George Bush comes out and says terrorists. You have (unintelligible) saying terrorists, and you have everybody on the ground going - pointing at Musharraf. And the fact of the matter is not only does this bring back to national security in this country, it gives a global effect.

You're talking about Afghanistan, you're talking about Iraq, you're talking about Iran, you're talking about that whole region, not just this one person getting assassinated. And, you know, even in Pakistan, Bhutto was a polarizing figure because she was seen as somebody who was right for (unintelligible).

Let's not forget that she herself was involved in a lot of scandal and corruption in that country. But she had come back because people were so fed up at Musharraf and his Western leanings or him being propped up by the Bush administration and others, and now you have - this woman gets assassinated. People are now boycotting the January 9th elections, the opposition party comes out and said they're not going to be taking part. So it's more than just chaos. It's really, really global turmoil.

MARTIN: Arsalan, I just wanted to ask you, quickly, do you think the elections will go forward?

IFTIKHAR: No, it's unfortunate. And I think that the true litmus test of how close Pakistan is to democratic transition is going to be how long the elections are going to be delayed.

MARTIN: Does the administration have any pressure points here?

IFTIKHAR: You know, I honestly think that this is really the place where Condee Rice can step in. I think that her legacy will not be at Annapolis. I think that it will be finding a resolution to this. It's going to be one of the most pressing foreign policy initiatives our country will take in the next few years. And I think it's a real test of this administration and the Pakistani people to see if they can make that transition to democracy.

MARTIN: Ruben brought up Barack Obama and his skepticism about Pervez Musharraf and it's kind of interesting because we're in the closing days of the campaigning before the Iowa caucuses. And this whole question of whether he has Muslim roots has somehow surfaced again. Jimi?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. No doubt. And Arsalan, I don't get it. I mean, we know he's a member of United Church of Christ.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

NAVARRETTE: And everyone is always getting to his Muslim training that he had when he was younger. But you know, a lot of people are worried that it's going to kind of derail the upcoming caucuses. Why are people trying to demonize Obama?

IFTIKHAR: I think here, there, you know, certain racist, xenophobic elements of the rightwing apparatchik are literally playing the Muslim Boogieman card. He has a diverse multicultural background, I think, is a benefit. And I think will serve him honorably when he becomes president. And I think that this will come back to bite these people in the backside.

MARTIN: Hey, Ruben, how is this Obama is a Muslim - is a covert Muslim thing being carried along?

NAVARRETTE: Well, I'll tell you how it's being carried along. I agree with everything Arsalan said about how it's going to back fire, about how it's racism, about how it plays on xenophobia and fear mongering. I disagree with one important thing that he said. This is not coming from the right wing. This is coming from the left wing. This is coming from Democrat liberals who support Hillary Clinton for president. The last person to bring this up was Bob Kerry - the Democrat, a Clinton supporter. And when members of the media like Wolf Blitzer at CNN corrected him and said, well, you know it's not true. He's not a Muslim. He didn't care. Kerry kept hitting the Muslim idea.

This harkens back to what happened a couple of weeks ago. Billy Shaheen, a liberal Democrat in New Hampshire, a Democrat, going after Barack Obama, trying to say that he's a drug dealer.

I'm going to tell you what this is about. Okay? It's real simple. Hillary Clinton wants to be president. The people around Hillary Clinton are going to play hardball against Obama. They have gone into racism now twice in two weeks. And they're going to back again and again and again. I think black folks and Latinos grade Democrats on the curve. They dole out a good amount of charity. They jump on white Republicans like Trent Lott and call them racist in a drop of a hat. But now, I got two examples, Liberal Democrats, who come up here and slammed Obama with racial overtones and black people don't say boo.

CHARLES: I agree with Ruben. You know, these people have been getting their way. To some of these people, I'm talking about the Clintons. If Bill Clinton is the first black president while Hillary wants to get him a black face by saying that she's close to black people. But she has nothing to do - they will do anything. And the closer Obama gets to making this a contest or it looks like he may be going ahead, these things will come up.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And if you're just joining us, we're visiting with the guys at the Barbershop. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks. Well, mark this day on the calendar because you know what? The R and S we agrees.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: So, all right, well, check this out, speaking of twisted media manipulations, actor and rapper Will Smith is in news for comments he made about Hitler and Latina actresses. And he said that Latina actresses are most often cast to increase film marketability. Now, wow, Nick, are you familiar with the...

CHARLES: I'm familiar with the - I'm familiar with both of them. And my thing about it is that the Latina comment came when he did "Hitch" last year and he had Eva Mendes as his leading lady. And you know, I don't know if it's a conscious effort to some kind of, you know, shadow conspiracy to only have provide actors - particularly African-American actors with spouses or leading ladies who are Latina - but there have been a lot them, from Cuba Gooding, Denzel, Will Smith. My question is don't they have enough juice to say, oh, we want a black woman to be next to us as a spouse, leading lady or, you know, somebody to bounce off of. The other thing about Hitler, you never say Hitler. And you don't even talk about Hitler. If you even think it, don't say it. Because there's nothing ever good that will come from you saying Hitler. If you say Hitler is a jackass, people are so going to misconstrue that as, wait a minute, why does he say Hitler wasn't such a bad guy, he's just a jackass, you know? You can't say Hitler in anything. SO just shut your mouth on Hitler.

IZRAEL: Yeah.

CHARLES: Substitute for something else.

IZRAEL: Use Reagan...

CHARLES: Reagan, anybody, Mussolini, Stalin - anybody you want to bring up, you know, you can bring David Dukes, anybody. Just don't mention Hitler.

MARTIN: Here's the exact quote in it. It was in an interview with the Daily Record. He was talking about his success and his work ethics. It's just a profile. The closing lines was, quote, "Even Hitler didn't wake up going, let me do the most evil thing I can do today. I thought he woke up in the morning using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was good. Stuff like that just needs reprogramming." And I think the context of it is, he's saying, look, I'm an optimistic guy and I think most people get up in the morning trying to do the right thing. But Nick is right. You can't - yeah. Hitler, leave him out of it.

NAVARRETTE: Bum rap for Will Smith. Bum rap.

IZRAEL: Yeah.

NAVARRETTE: Look at what he says. Those of us who deal in words and think about how badly that was taken out of context and misconstrued.

IZRAEL: Right.

NAVARRETTE: I think that the guy who wrote the article messed up because he put in his own words, saying that Will Smith was saying (unintelligible) basically good. So then Will Smith has to go off and issue these statements saying how Hitler is not a good person.

On the Latina thing - can I get on that real quick?

IZRAEL: Sure.

MARTIN: Sure.

NAVARRETTE: Can I get on the Latino thing? I think what I found really discouraging and depressing about these comments is the flipside. Are we really at a point where, as he says, you can't have a black actor and a white actress? And can we really not have a place where you end up with a black actor and another black actress. I started searching my memory and I came up with plenty of movies that I've seen where you have that combination. I don't think that it's a big deal. And it shouldn't be a big deal, for instance, to have a black actor and a white actress. The other, I saw a movie where - I think it was - oh, I remember. It was the remake of "Walking Tall," where The Rock's character - his mom and dad are an interracial couple - white woman and black man. Nobody says anything come out that. I mean, if we want to make a big deal, we will make a big deal out of it. But just slip it in. It's - that's the point that I found discouraging then. 2007, we can't have a black actor and a white actress.

IZRAEL: And obviously, in 2008, The R is going to be directing and producing. So that's something to look forward to but look for Ruben's first film next year, you know? But check this out. What were our favorite stories this year? Our top stories this year - my top three were Don Imus, the death of the sports hero. And it's kind of the year of YouTube, as far as I was concerned. YouTube was in the news an awful lot. It helped out with the debates. The R, what was your three top stories.

NAVARRETTE: I'll go with the horrible story at Virginia Tech - the shooting rampage; the Larry Craig story, obviously, the big political story; and the presidential race, some of the twists and turns there - the Huckabee surprise and the Obama surprise. The fact that they're much better than we thought they'd be.

IZRAEL: Nick?

CHARLES: I'm going to go with Imus. I'm going to go with steroid, which is also the death of the athlete. Marian Jones, Barry Bonds and then the Mitchell Report. And also I'm going to go with the whole thing about this oil and this energy and how, you know, we're going paying five buck or six bucks next year in 2008 for a gallon of gas.

MARTIN: Well, you live in New York. You're paying that now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: I would - being a civil rights lawyer, I think Jena Six is huge. I think the Michael Vick circus was quite interesting - looking back at it. And I think Virginia Tech was - I mean, that was huge. We've had some interesting stories in '07 and we're probably going to have some interesting ones in '08.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, that's a wrap. We're going to kick it back to the lady of the house.

MARTIN: That's right. I want to say happy new year to all of the fellows in the shop. Thank you for making the Barbershop the place to hang out.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you, Michel.

IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you very much.

CHARLES: Pleasure.

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael joined us from Cumulus Broadcasting in Tallahassee, Florida, where he is a freelance writer and reporter. Ruben Navarrette writes for the San Diego Union Tribune and CNN.com. He joined us from his office in San Diego. Arsalan Iftikhar is a contributing editor for Islamica magazine and a civil rights attorney. He joined us from our studios in Washington. And Nick Charles is the vice president of Digital Content at BET.com. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

Gentlemen, thank you so much again for joining us today and happy new year.

IZRAEL: Happy New Year.

CHARLES: Happy New Year.

IFTIKHAR: Happy New Year to you Michael.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Happy New Year. Yup, yup.

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