Guys in the Shop Discuss Politics, Oscars

Barbershop regulars Jimi Izrael, Ruben Navarrette and Arsalan Iftikhar are joined this week by screenwriter Alan McElroy. The guys weigh in on John McCain's alleged impropriety, Tavis Smiley's public riff with Barack Obama, and who they're rooting for at this year's Oscars.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Bible retold, or at least re-illustrated in a distinctive style. And you get your turn to talk back to us and we gladly listen. But first, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about whatever is in the news and whatever is on their minds. Sitting in the chairs this week for a shape up are freelance writer and reporter, Jimi Izrael, editor and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and I would also like to welcome screenwriter Alan McElroy to the Barbershop. I may jump in, but for now, take it away Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doin'?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Hey dude, what's going on?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Good, man.

ALAN MCELROY: Doing good.

IZRAEL: Yo, check this out. Skeletons come creeping out of the closet as the New York Times reporter says Senator John McCain's close ties with a female lobbyist made some of his advisors uncomfortable. Wooooo! Yo, Ruben, does it matter in the end?

NAVARRETTE: No, I don't think so. This is a nothing story and I'll tell you why. I spent two years in Arizona covering John McCain for the Arizona Republic. I would never have been able to get a story like this into the paper. There was no there there in this story. If you came to me and told me that John McCain had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist and that that influenced the way he dealt with the lobbyist's clients, then that's a grand slam homerun, you got me. But the story doesn't prove that either they had a romantic relationship or that said relationship influenced how he deal with the clients. I don't see anything there.

IZRAEL: Right, me neither, because I mean there's no there there. I mean this story has all kinds of sieves. I mean if I'm sitting near the editor and somebody pushes across a story across my desk with all these anonymous sources and he said she said, I'm like, yo, you better get me some names, bro.

NAVARRETTE: Well, not even the - we can use anonymous sources, but I'll tell you what. When you tell me that basically the story is that some staffers felt uncomfortable about the relationship, so they, the staffers maybe thought that there was a romantic relationship, I'm going to need something more than that.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. There is a named source. There is a named source. Arsalan maybe you want to weigh in, but...

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think both of what we're seeing here with McCain and the whole Michelle Obama thing recently is what we call front-runner stories. Now that we have a definite presumptive front-runner in the Republican race and Barack Obama now is the presumptive front-runner in the Democratic race, it's sort of, you know, what we saw with Howard Dean's bellowing yap. You know, the media now has to find stories. I do agree with Ruben to an extent. Although there was - I think it was the former chief of staff or McCain. It was a senior level staffer...

MARTIN: Who's named.

IFTIKHAR: Yes.

MARTIN: I mean Washington - I guess the part that steps out to me is that Washington is all about relationships. It's who can get in to see who.

IZRAEL: Exactly, exactly.

MARTIN: You know, who can I get in to see, and if you've got a named source saying that they had a meeting with the person to say stay away from that guy...

IFTIKHAR: This is John Rubert.

IZRAEL: Former top strategist for the campaign. He actually had a meeting with this woman, takes it upon himself to say stay away from John McCain. That's a little different than we have proof that John McCain and this woman were involved in a relationship.

MARTIN: Though they say they weren't.

NAVARRETTE: I think Rubert was being over-protective.

IFTIKHAR: No, but Ruben, also you have to understand when a former top strategist, top senior adviser for McCain is going on record in the New York Times saying that this is, you know, something that you might want to investigate, you know, obviously I agree with you, I don't think that there is a preponderance of evidence in any way. But I definitely think that it was a story. I don't think it was a non-story.

IZRAEL: Okay. You know what, hey Mac, hey Mac, do you think this is going to stop McCain's swagger at all with the voting public?

MCELROY: Not at all. I agree with you. There's nothing to back up this story at this point. I think what you see, anytime somebody starts to run out front, if you stub your toe, they're going to try and see how you're going to react to it. And so I think we're seeing, you know, shells being lobbed across the bow and then we're seeing, you know, do they overreact or do they under react? How is - what's the response from the front runners? They're all going to fact this. You know, Barack is going to see this happen somewhere. They're going to find that he got a C on a spelling test when he was in third grade and make a big deal out of it.

NAVARRETTE: Well, check this out. I heard this morning that the New Republic is about to publish a story, okay, about the dialogue at the New York Times, the fight in the newspaper about whether they should have gone to press with this particular story.

IZRAEL: Right, yeah I heard about that.

NAVARRETTE: This is a very divisive subject even within the newspaper. They couldn't figure out if this was really a story.

IZRAEL: Yeah I read about that, but you know what, I mean, I...

MARTIN: That doesn't make it not a story.

IZRAEL: You know what, Michel, give me some juice here. I mean for me as a reporter, I cannot deal with a story propped up with anonymous sources. Is that just me here? Am I crazy?

MARTIN: It's not just you and you're not crazy, but that doesn't mea anonymous sources are not legitimate to be used. There are some stories you would never get without anonymous sources. Watergate, the Watergate investigation was built on anonymous sources, the identity of which was only revealed 20 years later, a couple of months ago. So you know, this is exactly what's supposed to happen. People are supposed to debate it. They are supposed to debate the motivations, they are supposed to debate the quality of the evidence and the track record of the people presenting the information. That's how it's supposed to work. But some stories require - so the question is, is the foundation of evidence strong enough to - for you to believe it?

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: And that's a decision all of us have to make.

IZRAEL: I hear you.

IFTIKHAR: You don't want to rely too much on anonymous sourcing and I think that in the last five, ten years at least, in my opinion, I think the journalism has taken...

IZRAEL: Big, big hit.

IFTIKHAR: A big lean towards where people are just solely relying on that -I certainly hope that the Times has it right this time.

IZRAEL: In other McCain news, you know, McCain's wife is taking pot shots at Michelle's, Michelle Obama's patriotism. You know, political tricks are getting grimier and grimier by the minute. Yo, Michel, we got some tape on that Michelle Obama thing, right?

MARTIN: We do and we also will have it on our website NPR.org/tellmemore. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MICHELLE OBAMA: Let me tell you something. For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.

IZRAEL: Wow. I don't know man. Hey Mac, how do you read that? Do you read that as unpatriotic?

MCELROY: Absolutely not. I mean I think what she's saying is, at this point in history, in America, we're seeing kids step up and really take an interest in the political process. We haven't seen this happen in a generation. Not since the late '60s have we seen this kind of mobilization. And I think she's very proud of that. I'm very proud to see that kids are finally kind of stepping away from, you know, who's, you know, who am I going to vote for on "American Idol" to who am I going to vote for in the election.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I also think, I also think that - going back to what I was saying earlier, this is the whole frontrunner story. You know, now that Barack is the presumptive frontrunner, it's - every little thing is going to be magnified. This is nothing more than rhetorical hyperbole. She was trying to make a point. I think it was a very valid and cogent point that she was making. And you know, you have some people who are going to cherry pick that and try to spin it in a negative way because he's the frontrunner now.

IZRAEL: The R, get some of this.

NAVARRETTE: Tell you what, I'm going to agree with half and disagree with half.

IZRAEL: Okay.

NAVARRETTE: But I'm going to say absolutely, this is not evidence of her not being patriotic. I think that more than that, she is entitled to her opinion and she is entitled to her experience. And it made me angry that white male conservatives, that conservative media outlets jumped on this comment immediately, as if to say somehow that they are the arbiters of whether a black woman in American should or should not feel proud of her country. So that's out of bounds and I'm with her on that. Got it? Cool. Beyond that though, we have a problem.

IZRAEL: Now that I got that out of the way.

MARTIN: Now that we got that...

NAVARRETTE: We got a problem. We got a problem. We got a problem. Here's the problem, right? Barack Obama's success and Hillary Clinton's failure are all wrapped up in one thing. Barack Obama is positive and optimistic and hopeful and Hillary is Debbie Downer. Okay.

IZRAEL: Okay, right.

NAVARRETTE: Debbie Downer. So now I read this nice story in the Los Angeles Times that actually puts out the Michelle Obama thing and says that Michelle, unlike her husband, tends to dwell on the negative. So that's a problem and that she cannot take that in the general campaign if he's a nominee. So my words, lovingly, you know, with all love and (unintelligible) Michelle Obama, just shut up. Don't...

IZRAEL: No, no, no, now hold on, hold on - let, let, let this dude get in there right. You know, this is going to make me really unpopular, as if I care. But check this out. You know what, I've...

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) noticed...

IZRAEL: Right. I've said this before and I'll say it again. You know, when you're handling your business, sometimes it's better to leave your people at home no matter how pretty, no matter influential you think they are. Michelle Obama needs to fall back Bill Clinton style before she says something indefensible. I believe that. I absolutely believe that.

NAVARRETTE: Bill Clinton...

IZRAEL: I mean she does have that Jackie O thing jumping and she's got some of that same charisma. She's going to say something, same way Bill said something, and then Obama's going to be sitting there holding the bag. Just like Hillary was sitting there holding the bag. And sometimes when you're handling your business, people leave your people at home.

MARTIN: Can I say something?

IZRAEL: You know what?

MARTIN: Can I just say something?

IZRAEL: Yeah, go ahead.

MARTIN: Just quickly here. This reminds me of the Hillary Clinton moment ten years ago when she talked about the cookies. You know, I could have, you know, stayed home and, you know, had teas and baked cookies, but I chose to - and so she had like, you know, tons of cookies being sent to her. Women started sending her - I assume mainly women sending her cookies saying, take that, take your cookies, here's your cookies.

IZRAEL: Right, right.

MARTIN: And I just think this is kind of what happens.

MCELROY: But Michelle Obama..

MARTIN: When you are the spouse, right?

MCELROY: The problem with Michelle Obama is she went to Princeton undergrad, Harvard Law School. She makes a good living. Her and Barack make like $400,000 a year. America wants to know that people like that feel proud of this country.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarrette, and Alan McElroy in the Barbershop. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right, fellows. The Obamas can't make any friends because they are not getting any love from Tavis these days because he's dissed Obama for not accepting an invitation to the - quote, fingers up - State of the Black Union - quote, fingers down - contingent.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Yo, Michel, we've got a piece of tape on that somewhere, right?

MARTIN: Well, let me just say in the spirit of full disclosure that I have, you know, actually participated in the State of the Black Union in years past, and so, you know, I'm kind of a fan of the fingers-up State of the Black Union, but...

IZRAEL: I'm still waiting for my invitation.

MARTIN: I think you might be waiting a while longer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But anyway - just to clarify. So anyway, here's the deal. So Tavis extended this invitation. Barack Obama declined, saying you know, I'm kind of busy running for president here, and some people are not appreciating the fact that Tavis is making issue of it. We've got a clip from a blogger, Boyce Watkins(ph), talking about the Tavis and Obama smack-down.

BOYCE WATKINS: By attacking Barack Obama, you're making a huge mistake, man. You know, Barack Obama is so popular right now that people want to go - people will go into the bathroom while he's using it.

You're not going to get anywhere with this, and based on your black role comments and feedback I've seen, I'm shocked because I've never seen any case in which all the comments were 100 percent in the same direction. You know, people are saying, Tavis, you're a hater. Let Barack Obama run for the White House, and leave him alone.

MARTIN: There you have it.

IFTIKHAR: Wow, that's deep (unintelligible)

IZRAEL: A-Mac, who appointed Tavis king of all black people? I wasn't at that vote.

MCELROY: Well, I think - you know, the funny thing is that I think Barack has taken a smart stand here. I mean, he does not want to just be limited to being identified as the black candidate. He has to reach the entire country, and that's something that he fought, you know, against the Clinton campaign with.

They were really trying to minimize him and kind of ghetto-ize him, and he would not be silenced. He would not be pushed in a corner, and I don't think he wants to have that title kind of over his head. He has a huge country - he's got Latinos, he's got everybody to go out and talk to, and he's got to push forward.

IZRAEL: A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: Again, well first of all Jimi, if you want to be invited, I think you should take the fingers-up-quotes down, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: I think the important thing to keep in mind again...

MARTIN: Not to mention his blog, which is like dining out on Tavis lunch for however long - but I digress.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: Well again because Barack's the presumptive nominee now, he has to run a 50-state strategy, and let's remember that the State of the Black Union is in Louisiana, a state that Barack has already won. I assure if it was in Texas, Ohio or Pennsylvania with upcoming primaries, you'd see Barack front and center. He's running a 50-state strategy, and that's what he has to do. He does not want to be seen as the black candidate. He is the American candidate, and I think that that's something important to keep in mind.

MARTIN: I think it's also important to keep in mind that Arsalan is a Barack supporter - just thought I'd mention it.

MCELROY: I've got to say that about 10, 12 years ago, I used to host a radio show with Tavis Smiley in Los Angeles. I consider him a friend and a brother, and I'll tell you, I think this was him going too far. I think this was my brother's ego getting the best of him, people thinking that it was about him and not about Barack Obama running for president.

Having said that, I know that what set Tavis Smiley off was that the Barack Obama campaign apparently had leaked to the press that Barack Obama wasn't going to this event, and so for better or for worse, what I think Tavis got into his head was somehow that Barack Obama was running against the black community to try to white folks in the media and elsewhere that he was not feeling this urge to go down there and be part of the black America because he's talking to all America.

And I think that's something - when you read the blogs, the only stuff that I see that's out there that's sympathetic to Tavis at all is stuff that falls into that line, that basically African-Americans who feel suspicious that somebody running the Obama campaign is trying to convince white folks that he's not going to be all that black.

IZRAEL: All right, well you know what...?

IFTIKHAR: On that note.

IZRAEL: Yeah, I'm saying well stated, and in other fight - in other hand-to-hand combat, you know the Oscars will be handed out next week, and people of color were kind of locked out. You know, besides Ruby Dee and of course Javier Bardem - is that the right pronunciation?

IFTIKHAR: Bardem, Bardem.

IZRAEL: Thank you. Both of them got a nod, but it seems like there are - there's a lot of color missing from the Oscar nominations. Now Alan, A-Mac, we all know you're an insider. Does race play at all into the Oscar nominations?

MCELROY: Oh absolutely. I feel that you're going to see a lot of bias. In this regard, we've had great performances from Denzel, from Forrest Whittaker, and they're great debaters. We had, you know, great directing there as well, "American Gangster." We also say a great performance from Denzel, and I feel that the Oscar committee, you know, they've given Denzel the nod before, and they feel they've serviced that, and so they move on, and you see that time and time again. There's a definite bias that takes place.

NAVARRETTE: I don't think it's a race bias. I think it's a bias against people who win Oscars, and I think, you know, Tom Hanks won two Oscars in a row, and then he got snubbed for "Apollo 13." Maybe he deserved it, but you won two already. I mean, there's a sense that folks want to move on to somebody else.

It wasn't that long ago that the Oscars celebrated that great night where Sidney Poitier got the Lifetime Achievement Award, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Best Actor and Actress. Hello, that's a good night. That's a good night, okay? What's the complaint.

MCELROY: At this point, though, I think they feel like the black...

IFTIKHAR: Let Latinos have a night like that, and then we'll complain. Let's have Latinos have a night like that, and then we can complain. I mean, come on.

NAVARRETTE: Well, it's the year of Javier Bardem, I can tell you that much.

IZRAEL: Let's talk around with our Oscar picks. Yo, The R, Ruben. Who have you got?

NAVARRETTE: I've got Daniel Day Lewis for Best Actor for sure, and "There Will Be Blood" for best movie.

IZRAEL: All right. A-Mac?

MCELROY: "There Will Be Blood" was an amazing film. Daniel Day Lewis' performance was fantastic, and I really want that film to be the winner here.

IZRAEL: Okay. A-Train?

IFTIKHAR: I'm going to agree on the movie, "There Will be Blood." I think Javier Bardem, I think it's his year. I mean, the dude just gave a sick performance that I've never seen before.

IZRAEL: He was in No Country, right?

IFTIKHAR: Right, but I mean for his individual acting.

IZRAEL: Well you know what? If it were up to me, I think I'd have to write in Dennis Kucinich for acting like he ever thought he was going to be president, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: And his whole campaign, and ladies and gentlemen, I believe that's a wrap. Thank you so much for coming, and I've got to kick it back to the lady of the house, Michel Martin.

MARTIN: I was so glad you didn't ask me because I have not seen any of these movies. I have a four-year-old twins. I think it's going to be five years before I get to see another movie, but anyway, I'll take your word for it, though. I'll get your help in filling out my Oscar pool sheet. So thank you.

Freelance writer Jimi Izrael joined us from UFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. Civil-rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar is a contributing editor for Islamica Magazine, and he joined us from our studios here in Washington. Ruben Navarrette of the San Diego Union Tribune joined us from KPBS in San Diego, California, where he also writes for cnn.com, and screenwriter Alan McElroy joined us from WCPN in Cleveland.

You can find links to all of our Barbershop guests at our website, npr.org/tellmemore. Gentlemen, thanks so much for joining us.

MCELROY: Thank you, Michel.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

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